Colum McCann’s DANCER and Books About Dance

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Elizabeth Bastos

Staff Writer

Elizabeth Bastos has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, and writes at her blog 19th-Century Lady Naturalist. Follow her on Twitter: @elizabethbastos

dancer colum mccannDance. You either read that as a noun or as an imperative verb. Either you have the itch in your feet or you don’t.

I remember my grandfather trying to teach me to lindy when I was in high school because dancing was the currency of the kids of his generation and he couldn’t fathom of sitting home alone listening to The Cure.

I got the itchy foot late, in college, during the Swing Revival of the early 90s. I abandoned my English major and took classes in ballet and modern, and fell in with the denizens of the salsa clubs. I sucked at every Cuban turn I tried but…but… I loved it. I forgot who I was: shy Episcopalian.

I took a tango class with a teacher from Argentina and still remember the feeling of being swept across the room like a million bucks. It is one of my favorite memories, and I suck on it like a lozenge now that I’m in my 40s and my 3-inch salsa shoes with rhinestones up the t-strap collect dust when my daughter, 6, is not clomping around in them saying, “I’m what Mommy used to be!”

This is perhaps why Colum McCann’s 2003 book Dancer, a fictionalized biography of the famous Russian obsessive bad boy classical ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev hit me like an arrow. Whizz-bang.

The life lifts off the page like a grand jeté. Reading the extended monologue of Victor, the Venezeulan hustler who rolls with Nureyev through the bathhouses and society-lady drawing rooms of New York in the late 1960s (they knew Warhol! And slept with everyone important to the 20th century!), I was hardly aware that I was reading and not living right there with them in thigh-high snakeskin boots, rolling my shoulders, stretching, dangerous and vastly talented, before a performance.

I looked at my salsa shoes with renewed vigor. The book made me hungry.

But I have spinal arthritis, the salsa shoes hurt, that book is closed, what I want now is morebooks about dance. Dear readers, help me pirouette like Margot Fonteyn and Nureyev, her young lion, in the Metropolitan of my mind. What are your favorite books about dancers, and dance, danced, dancing, however you want to conjugate the verb, I’ll hit the beat.