Alice Robb, DON'T THINK, DEAR: On Love and Leaving Ballet

Alice Robb, DON'T THINK, DEAR: On Love and Leaving Ballet

Zibby interviews author Alice Robb about Don’t Think Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet, a profound and passionately-researched interrogation of the ballet world, inspired by the grueling years she spent at the most elite ballet school in the country. Alice describes what it was like to dedicate her childhood and adolescence to dance, her former and current challenges with body image, and her views on patriarchy in ballet culture. She also talks about how wonderful it was reconnecting with old classmates and including their stories in her memoir. Finally, she shares her best advice for aspiring authors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alice. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” So excited to have you.

Alice Robb: Thank you so much for having me. Thank you.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners about your beautiful memoir?

Alice: My book is called Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet. It is, in part, a memoir about my time as a student at the School of American Ballet. It’s also about four of my classmates who I started with at SAB when we were all nine years old. Our lives all went in different directions. It’s also a feminist interrogation of the ballet world and ballet culture.

Zibby: I love that you admit right away that you’re stalking all these people on Instagram. You’re like, but then I feel like it’s okay because I have a picture of us all together. It’s not really stalking because I know them. Your whole interior monologue and rationalization, that was very relatable.

Alice: That was the seed of this book. One of the seeds was social media stalking, as I talk about in the book. There were years when I was running away from ballet, trying not to think about it. It was all too painful. One thing I could not stop doing was stalking my old classmates on Instagram. This book was really just a big extension of that.

Zibby: I love it. You start out by showing us how much grit and determination you have, that you don’t give up applying for the School of American Ballet, you said forever being associated with rain. The whole city was on its knees because of 9/11. That was right when your lifelong dream came true.

Alice: Whatever little bits of early success I had were more about hard work than about talent. I just really wanted to be a dancer and kept applying to the school and maybe ignoring some of the signs that this was not going to be the easiest path for me.

Zibby: Still. I might want to be a ballet dancer. No matter how hard I worked, I am not going to be a ballet dancer, certainly not at the level that you were doing it. I feel like you’re underplaying your talent.

Alice: One of the things this book is about is that most of us are not going to be ballet dancers, but so many little girls pass through a phase of wanting to be a dancer, almost in the same way that girls want to be Cinderella or a fairy princess. You start at such a young age before you really know how you’re going to develop. There’s so many girls who are devoting a huge amount of their childhood. For me, it was hours and hours every week plus summer intensives and stretching at home while I watched TV and just so much commitment. The reality is, for the vast majority of even teenagers who have made it pretty far, it’s not going to be their career.

Zibby: True. Honestly, most things we do as kids are not going to be our lifelong careers. There are very few things that start that early and just keep going.

Alice: I’ve heard from people who pursued acting or different sports, even some former aspiring academics and anyone with a kind of difficult dream.

Zibby: You also wrote a lot about the effect of dance on body image and your body and even what it was like not being in control of your bones, which was such an interesting way to say that. You were like, I could be in control of my food and my body, but not my bones. I was like, whoa, I’ve never thought about my bones like that before.

Alice: That’s probably healthy. The standards of ballet are just so incredibly specific. People think, what’s a ballet dancer “supposed to” look like? They think they’re skinny. It’s just so much more than that. We have to think about the ratio of our torso to our legs, the width of our hip bones, the length of the neck. I have one friend who was told that her shins were too long. Someone else was told that her neck was too short. These are things, there’s just very little you can do about them. Of course, we would try to compensate. Maybe your neck would look longer if you were super skinny, things like that.

Zibby: You also explain that part of it had to do with the patriarchy, if you will, or the men — I don’t even have to say it like that. It also has to do with the men who are involved, from Balanchine to Peter Martins, and all of the detrimental effects that having sort of abusive men at the helm of this coterie of women, what that can do.

Alice: Ballet is a world that is, in some ways, very female. The vast majority of students, especially young students, are girls. It was a very gendered world as well. Tiny bits have changed. My book is largely about ballet culture in the 2000s. Boys and girls were always in separate classes. At SAB, boys all got to attend for free, whereas girls to had to pay. Boys were treated as this special, scare resource. Meanwhile at the top, the vast majority of choreographers were and still are men. Women are trained more to join the corps de ballet, which is where the job is to look like everyone else, a dozen swans all doing the same thing. It doesn’t exactly lend itself to nurturing your creativity. There’s a history of dictatorial male directors who control every aspect of the dancers’ lives, who marry their dancers, who are usually much younger. It’s really from top to bottom.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Tell me what it was like reconnecting with the girls from your class.

Alice: This book went through so many different phases as I was writing it. When I first had the idea, I thought it was going to be much less personal, much more academic. My first book was much more straightforwardly journalism. I thought this book was going to be a group biography of four famous women dancers from history. Then I added in my own story. I was like, this is fun. Then the final stage was, I wanted to expand it out from me and include my classmates. That was the most meaningful part for me. It was incredibly validating to hear my classmates’ stories. Before I started working on the book — I quit ballet when I was fifteen. I’m thirty-one now. I haven’t done ballet in a really long time. I kind of felt a little bit almost embarrassed that ballet still had such a hold on me and on my psyche. I still, when I started the book, maybe a little to a lesser extent now, if I ever went to the ballet, I would feel sort of jealous of the dancers. I still had internalized the ballet standard of what’s a perfect body. When I started talking to my classmates, some of whom had also quit ballet at the same time as me, and I heard how much ballet was still impacting them, that’s what gave me the confidence that this is a story worth telling. I wasn’t just a weirdo for still thinking about ballet.

Zibby: No. It’s such a formative piece of your life. How can you not think about it? I wouldn’t beat yourself up. I wouldn’t beat yourself up about it. How did they all feel about revisiting this?

Alice: It’s interesting. Also, I worked on the book over the course of a few years, so I was able to actually see things change in people’s lives, both the external realities and also how we were all thinking about things. We were all struggling with a lot of the same things. It was an interesting period that we were all talking about this, late twenties to early thirties. As we became firmer in our adult identities, some of the ballet residue was falling away a bit. One of my friends who I write about, Emily, who actually is still a dancer, when I first connected with her three or four years ago, she was in a pretty dark place. She wasn’t working. She had had hip surgery that she hadn’t really recovered from. She was living at home and not sure what she was going to do. She was in her late twenties. She felt like her best years as a dancer were past her. Actually, when she was thirty, she got an amazing job dancing at the Met Opera. It ended up being a bit more hopeful than I thought it might be when I started writing.

Zibby: That’s good. What is your relationship with your body like these days?

Alice: It’s pretty good. I’ll take a ballet class from time to time. There are positive things that I feel like I took from ballet in regards to how I relate to my body. It still physically feels good to do the movements. At the same time, the environment of a ballet class can be kind of triggering, so I’ll only do that once every month or two. I like running. I’m on ClassPass. I’ve found other substitutes that are less all-encompassing. It’s still the kind of thing where I’m like — I don’t know if you’re familiar with Strava. There’s an app that tracks your runs. I still steer clear of things that can make you really obsessive. I don’t have an Apple watch or a FitBit or anything.

Zibby: Got it. The phone records everything for me when I run, the rare times that I run anymore.

Alice: I didn’t know that there was a step count feature until someone told me about it. Then once I knew about it, I could not stop checking it. I wish no one had ever told me about it.

Zibby: Sorry. Good thing I didn’t just ruin it now. I don’t look at it for steps because that’s too depressing. I barely walk five feet a day. I like to feel some sort of accomplishment of how far I’ve ran, not the steps. Sometimes I’m like, oh, my god, I must have run four miles. It’ll be 2.2. I’m like, what? What do you do when you’re not working on books like this and taking the occasional dance class? What’s the crux of your life like?

Alice: The book has been pretty consuming lately. I also do some journalism still. That’s where I started my writing career. Especially in these little periods post-book, that’s usually what I go back to. It’s nice to have some little quick-hit things, get something up that’s short term. Just reading and writing.

Zibby: It sounds like the book, given all of the iterations it went through, could’ve been — was that stressful? Did you enjoy the process? How did you feel now looking back on the whole writing piece of it?

Alice: Another big part of the book, there was still a pretty heavy research component. I went back and read a ton of dancers’ memoirs and a book about the history of ballet. That was actually really fun because when I was doing ballet, we did very little of that. It was interesting to read a short history of ballet and actually be surprised by a lot of it. I grew up in the SAB and New York City Ballet world, so I did know a lot about Balanchine. I knew very little about dancers and choreographers anywhere else. I wrote most of this book during COVID lockdown. Honestly, it was nice to feel like I had a project. It felt very optimistic to work on something that would come out in the future. That was nice. I’m a total nerd. I love doing the research stuff. It was fun to also do the interpersonal stuff. I would go have a two-hour dinner with an old friend who I hadn’t talked to since we were fifteen, but also record the dinner. Then there was also the personal stuff. I went back to my childhood bedroom and was digging out my old diaries from under the bed and talking to my parents about their memories. My first book was about the science of dreaming. I would say that was much harder. I had to actually go read books about biology and psychology and interview scientists and stuff. This was pretty fun.

Zibby: What is your next project going to be?

Alice: I’m not sure. My two books have been very different from each other. I think my third book will also be a different genre.

Zibby: Amazing. I was reading to my son last night. In the middle of it, I was like, “I really want to write a book like this.” He’s like, “Did the character just say that, or are you saying that?” I was like, “No, I’m saying that.” That’s what I would really like to do if I had unlimited time, is just keep writing for my kids at their ages so that they’d always have something to read. As you try different genres, I’m like, that sounds interesting, intellectually fun to give it a shot.

Alice: It might be more useful if I did a consistent thing so I could take my readers from one book to the next.

Zibby: Whatever. Readers are pretty adaptable. Any advice to aspiring authors?

Alice: I feel like I had a kind of weird path where I didn’t study English or writing. I studied archeology. Then I went into journalism. When I sold my first book, I actually had never written anything longer than an article. It was a pretty big leap. The main way I’ve learned, other than, I have been fortunate to have great editors — I have a community of writer friends. Really, just reading, I think that’s the biggest thing, and reading the type of thing that you think you might want to make. One book that was formative for me as I was starting to think about, “What could a book about dance look like?” was — I don’t know if you’re familiar with the book The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. It’s a hybrid memoir, research-based, criticism book. The memoir strand is about Olivia Laing moving from London to New York for a relationship, but then it ends. It’s about being lonely in a foreign city. She goes to museums and looks at art that deals with loneliness. Then she gets into these biographies of artists and her criticism of the art, her interpretations of the art. It’s a really beautiful book. There were a handful of books like that that helped me think about how to structure this, so reading.

Zibby: Amazing. That’s great advice. Alice, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I really think you’re a great writer. I love the way you write and your whole style. It’s a mix of emotion and analysis. It was great. I really love the way you write.

Alice: Thank you so much for having me on.

Zibby: Thank you. Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Alice: You too. Bye.

Alice Robb, DON'T THINK, DEAR: On Love and Leaving Ballet

DON’T THINK, DEAR: On Love and Leaving Ballet by Alice Robb

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