James Whiteside, CENTER CENTER

James Whiteside, CENTER CENTER

Principal dancer and choreographer of the American Ballet Theatre James Whiteside joins Zibby to discuss his almost-memoir, Center Center, which James always knew he was meant to write. The two talk about his eclectic late mother and the impact she had on James and his siblings, as well as his plans for the future now that he is living his childhood dream.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, James. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Center Center: A Funny, Sexy, Sad Almost-Memoir of a Boy in Ballet.

James Whiteside: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so thrilled to be here.

Zibby: By the way, this is an amazing cover. Were you so thrilled to see this? What did you think of it?

James: Oh, my goodness. I had a lot of options to choose from with this cover. I knew I wanted to work with this artist named Daniel Clark who I actually was connected with on Instagram. I love his digital paintings. I didn’t want a big photo of my face or something weird. I asked for this artist to do a rendering of this photo that I have. It’s amazing. Then the artists at Penguin Random House Design came up with this pink and yellow, really pop-y, wild cover that I’m obsessed with. Everyone comments on how good the cover is, which makes me really happy.

Zibby: Now I feel pathetic for saying what everybody else does. I like to be at least a little bit different. Anyway, I’m kidding. Of course, it’s great. They say covers don’t make a difference, but it really can draw your attention in. Congrats on the cover. Why don’t you tell everybody about why you decided to even write this book? Here you are. You’re this amazingly accomplished ballet dancer, huge star in so many different ways. Yet you spend a lot of time — by the way, I loved your family history. I’m obsessed with your mom. I want to talk all about her story. Why write this book?

James: When I was around twenty years old, I had the idea to write a book called Center Center. I actually had the title of the book fifteen years before I started writing it. I always aspired to be a person who was on center center on a stage, which signifies its depth and width. At that time, I was an aspiring ballet dancer in the corps de ballet. I had just been an apprentice in Boston Ballet. All I wanted to do was the lead roles in ballets like Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, Sleeping Beauty, and many more. I knew that I had all these stories living within me and that I have a unique voice. Hair flip. It felt right to explore writing. I’m not a writer, per se, but I did my best here. I’m really, really happy with how it came out. It’s really interesting to explore yourself in a way that you never do. I’ve learned so much from all of this.

Zibby: I bet. This was a deep dive into so many parts of your life. You did it in such a creative way too, the way you intersperse the story and flashbacks, even different fonts. Then you have a screenplay and drawings. It’s definitely a huge creative enterprise, if you will. It’s neat to see that because there’s so many different ways to approach chronicling a life, essentially. This was really unique, as you are, so there you go.

James: Thanks. I didn’t want it to be a self-aggrandizing memoir. I’m thirty-seven years old. I have not lived my life yet, really. I wanted it to be really multimedium with illustrations and different forms of writing, fantasy, a screenplay, or whatever. It’s a little random. That’s why I like it.

Zibby: You start out by basically showing us your incredible perseverance and how you grew up among all these amazing ballet dancers. Some of them attained success before you. You had these summer internships where you got these scholarships to ABT for the summer. Then you had this crushing thing where they wrote this funny letter. They’re like, no, you can’t do that again. You’re like, you’re basically telling me I’ve wasted all of my time. Thank you very much. You have to land on your feet again and not give up. I always love hearing why people don’t give up in certain situations. You were not discouraged. Obviously, you had tons of talent and all the rest. How’d you just keep going and go to Boston and thrive there and then come back? By the way, your negotiating skills with ABT were amazing about the soloist situation. I was applauding you in that moment. Tell me a little bit about that.

James: I think perseverance or the ability to persevere has a lot to do with the innate qualities of a person and the atmosphere that they’re in. I grew up in an atmosphere that supported delusion in the best way. When I kept getting rejected from American Ballet Theatre in New York City, I was incredulous. I knew I wasn’t the best by any means, but I also knew that I could be really good. I knew I had the stuff within me, whether it be work ethic or personality or style. I knew I had something to offer that wasn’t being given a chance. I don’t know if that has to do with my parents or my siblings or where I grew up or what it is or just my brain chemistry, but I knew I wasn’t done yet and that it was completely incorrect to dismiss me so soon. I was sixteen years old. I worked my ass off for a really long time. I finally got there. It’s working.

Zibby: That’s great. I love it. That’s so great. Let’s talk about this family of yours. Your mom takes up with her swim coach. She has four kids. I have to tell you, I am a mom of four. I left my husband. I married my kids’ tennis pro. He’s now a movie and TV and film producer, everything. I totally related to Nancy in this moment where she is living this nice Greenwich life, and next thing you know, she and Stuart are off into the sunset. You track your whole history. You have these four older siblings. Then you come along as a product of this love marriage. Then your mom has a million bad things happen to her one after another, after another, after another. The compassion you write with about her and the love — just tell me about Nancy. Just go there.

James: I dedicated the book to Nancy, my mom. I adore her. I lost her in 2016. In writing about your late mother — when I started writing this, it had only been three or four years since she had passed. I don’t know if that’s quite enough perspective, but I did my best to write honestly with empathy and understanding as opposed to — I just did not want to write a mean piece about my mother, who was fascinating, inspiring, creative, brilliant, and also incredibly flawed, as all humans tend to be. I had a really intense task of writing honestly about someone that I really love and respect with complete and utter devastating honesty.

Zibby: The toxic shock syndrome that she went — I’ve only ever heard of that because it’s warning in women’s feminine products. Occasionally, watch out. I’ve never known anyone who’s had it. She had two horrific bouts with it. Describe that a little bit. I could not believe the physical impact that had on her. How you must have felt watching this happen to her, that must have been excruciating for you.

James: I was a teenager when she had it. I don’t know if you know this, but teenagers are incredibly selfish and horrible.

Zibby: No way.

James: When this was all happening, I almost resented her for being ill. I was going through my own issues like trying to figure out my sexuality, coming to terms with the fact that my mother and father divorced when I was two years old and struggling with having two different households with different sets of rules, navigating being bad at school, and dancing. All these things were going through my mind. I was entirely too selfish to commiserate and empathize with a very, very, very ill woman. I had a lot of shame from that time, honestly. That’s something that I really learned in writing about my mother, is how awful I have been. Almost, in writing my mother’s story, that was my best way of apologizing. I think she deserved so much better than I gave her.

Zibby: You can only give what you have to give. That’s what you had to give then. You can’t look back and — I’m sure you weren’t as bad as you thought. She went through a lot. You guys went through a lot. The way you wrote about it, too, was so great. It’s like a story in homes, each home and downward mobility that she goes through until she’s in this shack. Then the shack floods. She’s basically left with nothing. I know this is your story. I’m sorry. I’m like, let’s talk about your mom some more. I’ll stop.

James: She’s the most interesting part of my story, for sure.

Zibby: No, no, your own life is super interesting too. How she was even able to come back from that? In that moment when the house is covered in seaweed, I was just like, I think this woman might be killing herself now. I don’t know how she’s going to go on. I don’t know how they’re going to get out of this moment. How did you all rally from that? I couldn’t believe you even tried to salvage the house.

James: We didn’t have a choice. It was just what we had to work with at the time. This goes back to that strength in delusion thing. She had five kids, all of whom have a very, very strong bond with one another. I think in witnessing our bonds, there was nothing to do but keep going. We all lifted one another up and made it work because there was no other choice. It’s rather inspiring when I think about the way she persevered.

Zibby: Wow. Last scene with your mom, I’m sorry, but when she and your sister-in-law were standing at the top of the stairs. Your mom was in the worst place emotionally. She was like, just look, just look. All of you guys were down there laughing and carrying on. She’s like, look how beautiful this is. That was so moving. No matter what you go through, look at what you can create and what lives on after you. Here you are honoring her with this book. It’s very moving.

James: Thank you. In the height of the pandemic, I sat with my siblings and my brothers and sisters-in-law. We would just get drunk and do Zoom meetings together. I would take notes on their experiences and learn their points of view in dealing with Nancy and being raised by Nancy. Our age range is quite wide. It was so exciting to hear about their points of view and their experiences and things like that. It was beautiful to hear.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Then back to your dancing, what is like now to have achieved all of this after going through so much? I watch you on Instagram. You’re amazing. It’s so cool to see, what you can do with your body and using it like that. Are you in pain a lot of the time? How are you doing this? Are you taking ice baths? How do you get through all of this training and everything?

James: Ballet is rather painful and hard on the body. It’s unnatural. It’s pretty unnatural, what we’re doing. I don’t take care of myself as much as I should. I absolutely loathe taking baths. I’m a very quick-and-dirty maintenance person. If something’s really messing me up, I will do an Advil before bed and maybe ice my ankle or knee or something. I don’t really get massages all that often. I don’t do physical therapy as often as I should. I sort of let my body do its thing. It tends to work out pretty well for me. I’ve been incredibly fortunate. I have not had completely debilitating injuries. I’d say the worst thing I’ve dealt with is patellar tendonitis, which is the tendon in your knee that connects your kneecap. That’s just from jumping around. It’s also called runner’s knee. I don’t run, but I sure do run around the stage.

Zibby: That counts. You’ve achieved so many of the goals you set out to do. Now you have this book out. What’s next? What’s on your list of, okay, I did this, and I did this, and now I want to do this? Is there a ballet you want to star in, a performance you want to do, a place you want to go, where you want to dance? Is there something personally you’re eager to cross off the list?

James: This is going to be a laundry list of pipe dreams here, but I like to put things out into the world. I would love very, very much to adapt an essay or two or three or all from my book into television or film or even a play. I would like to continue choreographing classical ballets. Ideally, I would make a full-length story ballet hopefully centering around queer stories because that doesn’t exist yet. I would like to write a teen series of books, fiction. That’s a good laundry list for now.

Zibby: That is good. Wait, the teen series, what would that be about?

James: I can’t tell you yet, but I know what it’s going to be about.

Zibby: Oh, okay. Don’t tell me.

James: I don’t want to spoil it yet because I know it will morph and change, but I have a very solid plan.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I love that. Very cool.

James: Hopefully, someone will publish it.

Zibby: Excellent. Great. What advice would you have having made it through this memoir project, aspiring authors, people who want to tell their own story or even want to figure out how to tell their family’s story in a way that doesn’t alienate the people who are still alive and honors those who have passed away and yet gets to the crux of it? You made your way through here. What’s your advice?

James: My advice is to wait until everybody else is dead. I’m kidding. Definitely, kidding. As a creative person, I am not shy. This has served me incredibly well. I am not an extrovert, not an introvert. I lie somewhere in the middle there. Creatively, I am so extroverted. I don’t care if you like what I make. I am just happy to make it. I think this is a great place to be creatively. I didn’t go to college. I pretty much barely graduated high school, but I am curious. I read a lot. I wanted to write a book, so I did my best to make it happen. Don’t be shy. Be creative. Be bold. Just do it.

Zibby: I love it. That’s great. James, thank you so much. Thank you for sharing your story and for chatting with me today. I really, truly enjoyed it. It was great.

James: Thank you, Zibby. It’s my pleasure. I hope everyone enjoys it out there. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

James Whiteside, CENTER CENTER

CENTER CENTER by James Whiteside

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