Nicole Cuffy, DANCES

Nicole Cuffy, DANCES

Zibby speaks to debut author Nicole Cuffy about Dances, a spellbinding new book about a Black ballerina who is promoted to the top tier of her ballet company and, while navigating her sudden propulsion into fame, becomes consumed with finding her missing brother. Nicole describes her love of ballet, every step of her writing process (she’s a meticulous researcher and planner), and the first novel she wrote that never made it out into the world. She also speaks openly about her eating disorder, sharing how it has evolved over time (and through her pregnancy) and manifested itself in her book about ballet–a dance that puts bodies into hyperfocus.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Nicole. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Dances: A Novel.

Nicole Cuffy: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: This is a really, really beautiful story about body and dance and family and so much else. I would love for you to tell listeners about it and what inspired you to write it.

Nicole: It’s a book about a Black ballerina who gets promoted to the top tier of her ballet company and is dealing with some sudden life events and just the consequences of her sudden propulsion into fame. For me, I was really hungry for a book like this. It didn’t exist like this yet. There aren’t that many fictional ballet books out there. There certainly are very, very few about Black ballerinas. I couldn’t find a book like it. I really wanted that book to exist, so I wrote it, or I tried to.

Zibby: Amazing. That is what they say to do. Go to the bookstore, and if you can’t find what you’re looking for, just create it. There you go. Easy, but I bet it wasn’t just that easy. Have you always wanted to write a book about something? Where did this all come from? Give me your life story. Take me back to the beginning. Tell the story.

Nicole: Back in 1988… I had been writing for a while. I have short stories that are floating around out there. This actually was not my first novel. It’s just the first one that is being published. It was a matter of really wanting to tell stories. I did as a little kid. I do it as an adult. Storytelling is just compulsive for me. For me, tapping into this specific story was really about wanting this story to be out there, wanting this story to exist, and also wanting to immerse myself into this world that I love so much.

Zibby: Do you do ballet? I’m sorry, I should know all this, but I don’t know it. Are you a ballerina as well?

Nicole: I do ballet. I’m not a professional, but I love ballet. I’m at the ballet as often as I can be there. I do dance as well.

Zibby: Awesome. What other kinds of dance do you do? Do you do other types of dance or ballet only yourself?

Nicole: Just ballet.

Zibby: There was a lot of dialogue, particularly between the mom in the book — I always forget everybody’s names — Cece and her mom and how negative an influence her mom was on her dreams and pursuing her dreams and saying things like, this is not what we do. This is a foolish aspiration. Even just from the body type, this is not what Black bodies are meant to do, or whatever, and the muscles and all that stuff. Was the mom intended to be just all the negative voices in the world, all the negativity that you have in your own head? Did you have negative influences?

Nicole: Not really, to tell you the truth. Cece’s mom could not be further from my actual mom or anyone who had a part in being a support system for me. I came from a very supportive family who would’ve supported me if I had decided to go off and join the circus. For me, Cece’s mom is sort of, yes, the embodiment of — a lot of times, our harshest critics are these internal voices. Cece’s mom represents that, but externally, and also someone who just truly does not understand their child and their point of view in the world. Cece’s mom really does want what’s best for her but is just trying to support her in the worst possible way.

Zibby: I love the support of her older brother. You had one scene where they were walking to school in the beginning. You got a glimpse of who he was when he wasn’t just being the great older brother and what other things he was up to in order to support her and pay for her ballet habit, which was great. It said, and then she hadn’t talked to her brother in ten years. I was like, oh, no. I wanted him to come back.

Nicole: I think she did too.

Zibby: How many times have you seen The Nutcracker? is really my question here. How many times have you gone to The Nutcracker?

Nicole: The Nutcracker, much like many of the dancers who dance it, is really not my favorite ballet in the world. It is, undeniably, a classic. It definitely does bring people, especially families, to the ballet, so you have to love it for that. My rule is that whenever I move somewhere or if I happen to be in a new city during a holiday season, I have to see the local company’s version of The Nutcracker. I have probably seen The Nutcracker — it’s not a ton of times. I’ve probably seen it maybe five or six times from different companies. My husband actually really loves — it’s the one ballet he knows. He loves The Nutcracker. We’ve gone a few times just because I know he loves it.

Zibby: That’s sweet. What was it like developing Cece as a character, figuring out — even though you said you’d written one novel that was not published, that is so common. I feel like every novelist says that. You have to write a practice one. You don’t think it’s a practice one, but how could you possibly have it be perfect without trying it? You have to try doing it first and then do another one and sell it, I think. I don’t know. Tell me about the process of writing that other novel — what was that about? — and then coming to this novel. This novel’s really good. You figured out how to do it. The characters, you’re immediately rooting for them. Anyone with body image issues can relate to Cece as well. That was a big strain, and female friendship and a new nickname for Katherine, which was lovely. Take me through the writing piece of writing.

Nicole: For a number of years, I was one of those writers who was very much like, I’ll just sit down in front of a blank page and let the characters tell me what they want the story to be, and I’ll just go from there, which I think is a lovely sentiment, but it doesn’t even match who I am as a person. When I go somewhere when I travel, I research everything. I learn the language. I plan an itinerary for the entire time. I’m a very organized, research-based person. This “go with the flow” thing, it wasn’t working very well. Once I figured that out and really got to know the kind of writer that I was, things started happening a lot more easily. Typically, what I do is, I have an idea. I begin a lot of research. Then once I feel like my research is at some stage of completeness — although, it’s never really quite done — I will create an outline. I’ll create a basic outline that just sketches out what I want to happen and when some of the major turning points in the plot will happen. Then after I create that basic outline, I actually go back and create a more detailed outline which goes chapter by chapter and pinpoints everything that’s going to happen in that chapter and more thoroughly sketches out character development and plot propulsion, all of that stuff. Then really, the writing process is just going back and filling in that detailed outline. That’s typically how I do it. The one quirky thing that I do in my writing process is I do write all of my books by hand first just because that feels better to me for some reason. Then I go back and transcribe and do some light editing as I’m typing it up. Then my major edits will come a little bit later.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I love it. What a system. It sounds perfect. Do you allow yourself to change? If a character all of a sudden starts wanting to go in a certain way, do you let that happen? Are you like, “No, I’m going to stick to this outline”? Maybe it doesn’t happen.

Nicole: At least for me, the beauty of the outline is that I set it up so I can set it free. It’s there as a structure, but I am totally allowed to deviate from that outline as I’m going if I need to.

Zibby: I love that. I set it up so I can set it free. That’s the best advice on outlining. That’s great. Pithy, to the point, amazing. Then what happened? Tell me about the first novel. Let’s go back there. What was that about?

Nicole: The first novel that I completed was my grad school thesis. It’s still there. It’s just in need of some heavy editing. There are actually two other books between that first novel and this one. Again, they’re there. They just need some editing. I’ve been a very prolific writer for a while. I tend to write about a book a year. That might change now that I have a child. We’ll see what happens. I am just a compulsive writer. I have to get it done. I have to get it out. Whether it goes anywhere or not, it’s there.

Zibby: Amazing. How old is your daughter?

Nicole: It’s my son. He’s two months old.

Zibby: Two months old, wow. Why did I say daughter? I have no idea. I’m sorry. Clearly, losing my mind over here.

Nicole: Funnily enough, while I was pregnant — we decided to wait to find out what gender we were having. I thought he was a daughter for a very long time, for most of my pregnancy, so that works.

Zibby: So cute, oh, my gosh. I’m obsessed with babies. So cute. Are you sleeping at all?

Nicole: I got very lucky with this kid. He pretty much slept through the night from day one. I know that we’re very lucky. I know this could change. I know there’s a four-month sleep regression to look forward to. We’ll see what happens. So far, he’s been a very, very good sleeper.

Zibby: That’s great. That’s excellent news. Tell me the story of selling this book.

Nicole: Basically, this book started out in its rough form. I edited it down and started pitching it or sending it around. That first round of submissions just didn’t really go anywhere. Usually when that happens, I’m like, okay, I just need to go back to the drawing board and take a look at what else I can do. Then the pandemic hit. It had been a while since I had touched this book. I sometimes need a little bit of distance before I go back and do a major revision. It had been maybe a year or two since I had touched this book. The pandemic hit. I was working from home. I rarely left my house. As an introvert, that was absolutely lovely for me. I kind of miss it. I was like, let me return to this book now that I have all of this space. I don’t have to commute anywhere. I don’t have to be anywhere. Let me really focus on editing this because I really feel like this is a time for this book to get out there. I spent maybe a couple months very intensively revising this book and really strategically putting together a list of agents that I could send it to. That was the time when I got interest. I think it was just because I had that space to really laser-focus on it and work on it and improve what I was trying to do with this book.

Zibby: Then you picked an agent. Then what was it like sending it out? Was it a short process? A long process? Were you freaking out? What was that period of time like?

Nicole: I kind of feel like it was a short process, all things considered. It went on submission, and we got the bite from One World pretty quickly in that process. At the time, it felt like it took a long time. I was so anxious. All of that anxiety and imposter syndrome started kicking in. There’s a long stretch where you just don’t hear anything until you hear something. Once we got that bite from One World, it just seemed like it was a really, really good fit. Things really accelerated pretty quickly from there.

Zibby: Your dog is jumping around. How cute, oh, my gosh. My dog is sleeping right here. I don’t know if you can see her.

Nicole: Oh, she’s so cute.

Zibby: That’s exciting. It’s funny because I have been on both sides of this now, in the excruciating waiting game of my own works only to be met with negative stuff and then finally positive stuff, but so much waiting and always checking my emails all the time and asking my agent, could you just follow up? Can you see what’s going on? Now as a publisher, I’m like, okay, but there’s a whole pipeline of stuff that’s already there. Unless an agent comes in and is like, “This one’s going to auction within a week. You got to get on it,” which I don’t know how they know, but unless there’s something like, “We need your bid in three days,” then we have a whole process that we follow. It’s no reflection on the book at all. I know everybody knows this, but now that I see —

Nicole: — It doesn’t feel like it in the moment.

Zibby: It doesn’t feel like it on the other side, especially after years of work. Not that that’s so profound. I’m sure you know this. What are you working on now?

Nicole: Right now, I have a couple projects that I’m trying to work on simultaneously. I have a book that I’m editing. I have a book that I’m writing. Doing both at the same time. Very different books. One’s about a cult. One is about music.

Zibby: Awesome. That’s exciting. When are you finding time to write? Do you find time to read?

Nicole: Reading happens while my son is napping. I find that audiobooks are excellent for this because I can be doing something else while reading at the same time, which is great. Writing, at first, it seemed like I was never going to be able to write again. I was like, I knew this was coming. I knew it was going to get hard once the baby was here, but I wasn’t prepared for what it was going to feel like to just not have the time to write at all. Especially as one who’s breastfeeding, every few hours, I am doing something. Eventually, I started to think to myself, you know — once he established more of a schedule, he goes down pretty consistently between eight and ten at night. I’m a night owl. I was like, why am I going to bed when he goes to bed? I’ll stay up and write for a few hours, maybe until one or two. Then I’ll go to sleep. Because he’s such a good sleeper, he won’t wake me up again until four in the morning or so. Then he’ll be out until a reasonable hour to wake up. I’ll still get enough sleep, but I’ll also have this hours-long chunk of time to sit and write. That’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve just been burning the midnight oil once he goes to bed. My husband goes to bed with him, usually. I just hang out in the living room with the dog and get a cup of tea and write for a few hours before I go to bed.

Zibby: When I am not so tired that I am passing out early and I have those rare — I would say maybe once every two weeks, I have a big later-night spurt of energy for god knows what reason, or there’s just too much stuff that I have to finish before I go to bed. Then I’m in it. Everybody’s sleeping. The kids are asleep. Everybody’s making their sleeping noises. It’s so nice. Then I have trouble putting myself to bed. If nobody’s like, “Mom, come to bed,” then I’m like, I could just stay up forever.

Nicole: It does feel like that. Then you have the consequences the next day of trying to stay up forever. It’s like, you’re not eighteen anymore. Don’t do that.

Zibby: I’m going through that right now. I did have one of those late-night spurts last night, which is why I can barely form a sentence today, but it’s okay. It happens.

Nicole: It does.

Zibby: What types of books do you like to read?

Nicole: I have such an eclectic taste in books. I love any kind of literary fiction. I’m into it. I love reading especially historical fiction. The research component of that, it really speaks to my nerd side. I love that. I love YA. I think YA, in the past fifteen years, has done something so cool. It went from a genre that was kind of only for a certain age group to a genre that is more diverse and talking about these really interesting, complex topics and dealing with such interesting subject matter. I do love YA as well. I grew up reading sci-fi and fantasy and horror, so I still love those genres. Love a cozy mystery. I love really, really good literary nonfiction. Kind of run the gamut of possible genres.

Zibby: That sounds good. What is your relationship to your own body like post-ballet-ness? How has writing the book shifted it, if at all? How has motherhood shifted it, if it all?

Nicole: Writing the book, especially the pieces about Cece relating to her body, I wanted to be really careful to make this more complicated than, she’s a ballerina, so she has anorexia. I think that’s the story that we tell most often about dancers, but it’s not the only story that’s out there. That’s not the only experience for dancers, is to have a disordered relationship with food. I did want to talk about the complexities of being in a career that makes such crazy demands of the body and the result being that you have this hyperfocus and this hyperconsciousness of your body in a way that I think can’t be healthy all the time. That was what I was really trying to explore in the book. At the same time, I do think that I brought some of my own relationship with my body into the book. I do struggle with an eating disorder. It was part of why I didn’t want to put it on the page, just because I wanted this to not be about me and dance. I wanted her to be her own character and to not be confused with the author, which I think sometimes happens in fiction.

It’s not dance’s fault. I think dance is something that happened because of my hyperfocus on my own body instead of causing my hyperfocus on my own body. I’ve struggled with an eating disorder that I only started calling an eating disorder when I was in grad school. Before that, I was like, it’s fine to only eat this many calories a day. That’s just a diet. That’s healthy. That’s fine. Once I got out of denial, I actually started talking about it and getting more comfortable with the idea that, no, this is not healthy. I think a lot of people within the Black community grow up with this idea that Black women don’t get eating disorders. Black women don’t get anorexia. I grew up with this idea. It was part of my struggle to accept that that was what was happening with me. That doesn’t happen to this community. We don’t get that, so coming to terms with that. Then motherhood has been a doozy. Anorexia is so much about wanting to be in control of your body all the time and wanting your body to be predictable, wanting it to do what you want it to do and look how you want it to look. Pregnancy alone throws all of that out the window. You don’t know what’s going to happen to your body. It’s entirely out of your control, for the most part. You can’t — you could. You could continue to have a disordered relationship with food, but you really shouldn’t because it would be bad for your baby.

We so wanted my son. He’s so precious. He’s so wanted. I wasn’t going to do anything to put him at risk or to harm him in any way. I had to get myself in gear and fix my relationship with food at least for the duration of my pregnancy. Now that I’m still at the tail end of the fourth trimester and just watching my body readjust to not being pregnant anymore, I’m not going to lie, it has been a little bit difficult to adjust to my body being different in a way that it’s never been before. In another way, it’s also been helpful because it’s forced me to accept my body’s fluctuations. It’s forced me to cede some control a little bit. Also, it’s forced me to trust my body and to recognize that it really does do what’s best. It does what it needs to do. It gave birth to this beautiful baby boy. It is feeding him and nourishing him. He went from being a little string bean when he was born to this little chunky two-month-old. It’s crazy to me how chunky they get off of just milk. It’s so cute. That’s my body that’s doing that. In a way, motherhood has made my relationship with my body more difficult, but in another way, it’s also forced me to grow some love for my body in a way that hasn’t existed previously.

Zibby: I think it’s really amazing to speak so openly about it and to talk about your eating disorder and help all the people out there who might not have acknowledged that they have one, or they do have one but maybe don’t have the right community or don’t hear about it enough. Not like there’s ever a right time and place, but I feel like people are so hard on themselves, like what you were saying with, people in the Black community should not have an eating disorder. People in their thirties, people in their forties, everybody has a thing. I should not have this. I should not have that. In truth, the demons that we have don’t discriminate. Time, place, it doesn’t matter. All the exterior things, these are just quirks that happen to so many of us in different ways. They just come out a little bit different. I think your being so open is hugely helpful. When you were like, “And then I realized I had to just fix my relationship with food,” I’m thinking, there are many times that I was like, “I need to fix my relationship with food,” that I have not been able to do so. How did you do that? Was it literally a self-talk? Did you get help? Did you do workbooks? Therapy? How did you do that even just for the pregnancy?

Nicole: Definitely, therapy. I’ve always been a big proponent of therapy. I continue to be in therapy to try to help me. I guess fix isn’t the best word to use because I don’t think this is something that I’m going to cure. I think it’s something I’m going to learn how to live with in a healthier way. Honestly, part of what made it so that I could eat healthfully during my pregnancy was the fact that pregnancy was nine months long. I could commit to eating in a way that made me uncomfortable for nine months. Then it turned into this relief because I could eat fast food and not beat myself up about it. I could just say, I’m pregnant. I can have this because I’m craving it. It almost gave me permission to eat in a way that would’ve felt forbidden and would’ve felt extremely uncomfortable before pregnancy.

Zibby: Interesting. I have to tell you, I don’t know if this helps in any way, but what you were saying about just seeing what happens to your body during pregnancy, if you decide to have more kids, you realize, who knew? This is what my body does. Now it’s going to do it again, maybe a little bit different this time. Then now that I’m in post — I don’t even know where I am, but whatever. This other end where my body is shifting again, you’re just like, oh, this is what my body does when I age. That’s what her body does. That’s what happens to her face. That’s what happens to her hair. We all just have to sit back. We’re so cerebral in so many way. Everything is analyzed. Yet these things, we all just have beating hearts. Things happen to us. I don’t know if that was any consolation.

Nicole: Yes.

Zibby: I would encourage you, if you haven’t already — I know you do a lot of fiction and short stories and all of that, but writing essays about this or reaching out or just sharing your thoughts on it. We have a magazine, Zibby Mag. I would love to run something if you wanted to write about it or anything. I would love that. I really think it’s so important. It’s wonderful to hear you talk about it openly. It really is wonderful.

Nicole: I’ve just started practicing talking about this openly. For so long, it was something that I just did privately, really good at making sure that people didn’t notice that I wasn’t eating. Part of working on my relationship with my body and food is not hiding anymore.

Zibby: I feel that secrets themselves are the most destructive thing. Whether you’re hiding your eating or you’re hiding something about yourself, you can’t completely connect because there’s almost something in the way. It can weigh on you. Even the fact that you’re being open, I’m sure, will help. I did an interview — you might want to go back and listen; I can put it in the show notes or something — with Nora McInerny who was talking about her own struggles with anorexia. I remember asking her, how do you get through it now? She’s like, I’m not sure I am getting through it. We need more people speaking up and doing what you’re doing because it’s hard. It’s hard.

Nicole: It is.

Zibby: Good for you. That sounded so condescending. Good for you, but I mean it. I really mean it. It’s brave. It is brave and hopefully helping you as well as helping others.

Nicole: I hope so.

Zibby: If I hadn’t stayed up so late, I would’ve said that better. I wish you all the best with Dances. I’m excited to follow along in your successes and long-awaited accolades. Just know that there’s a lot of stress. I know you know all this too. I don’t know why I’m giving you advice. This is ridiculous. I’m sorry. I feel like I want to protect you or help you or something. I don’t know why I’m feeling like that. You don’t need my advice. You’re an incredibly strong, amazing woman. Anyway, if you want it, I’m here. Thanks so much.

Nicole: Thank you. It was so nice talking to you.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Nicole: Bye.

Nicole Cuffy, DANCES

DANCES by Nicole Cuffy

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