The words will dance across the page


January 02, 1993|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

Even the clumsiest of little kids can be captivated by dancing class, especially when it's a session of stretching, tiptoeing, sliding and marching by a group of giggling 3-year-olds.

That's the fun of "Dancing Class," by Lucy Dickens (Viking, $14, ages 3-7). This time of year, loads of kids filled with post-"Nutcracker" inspiration go off in search of the perfect plie. Here are some books that can keep those toes tapping, beginning with the beginners.

Ms. Dickens' bumping, bouncing "Dancing Class" is satisfying on several levels. First, there are both boys and girls in the class. Second, kids of many races are represented.

And third, the curriculum is just right for a first-time dance class: The preschoolers aren't whipped into shape as if they were budding Baryshnikovs. Instead, they're learning to have fun moving their bodies, by racing like trains and flying like birds and wrapping up class with a rousing rendition of ring-around-the-rosy.

* The discipline of dance will come soon enough. And so, it is hoped, the rewards. The power of being able to express feelings through dance is conveyed beautifully in "I Have Another Language; The Language Is Dance," by Eleanor Schick (Macmillan, $13.95, ages 5-11).

In graceful pencil sketches and straightforward words, Ms. Schick, a former dancer, tells the story of a young African-American girl who will be dancing on a stage in a theater for the first time.

She goes to school and then to modern dance class, all the while feeling an excitement she can't describe. She goes home to rest, and then rejoins her friends at the theater. The curtain rises.

"Things I can't say in words run through my body as I dance. I feel them again, in a new way. When our performance ends, the people in the audience clap and rise to their feet. We know they have felt our feelings. Their applause wraps around us all, like a hug."

* The joy of expression is even more profound for Lotus, a Cambodian girl who is born deaf and mute in "Silent Lotus" by Jeanne M. Lee (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $14.95, ages 5-8). Although her parents cherish her, she grows up lonely because other children shun her.

Wanting to help her and hoping for a sign from the gods, Lotus' parents travel with her to the temple in the city. There they see dancers perform for the king and queen, and Lotus imitates their moves. The king and queen invite her to train to become a court dancer, telling the tales of gods and kings.

And as she learns to become eloquent in the ancient tradition, Lotus also makes friends. That's comforting to know, since we don't see her parents again until she performs for the king a few years later. Did they return to their village, leaving a daughter of 10 or 11 to train at the temple? Probably.

That's the only down side of an otherwise uplifting story. Ms. Lee, who was born in Vietnam, says the book was inspired by the decorations on the ruins of the 12th-century temple at Angkor Wat, which she visited with her parents when she was a child.

* As one who preferred baseball to ballet, I can only imagine that the thrill of going to a shop to have your first tutu custom-fitted would be comparable to receiving your first glove (mine was a Clete Boyer).

I never had a twinge of regret about choosing pick-off moves over pointe shoes until reading "Tutu" by Audrey Chevance (Dutton, $13.95, ages 4-9). It's a fascinating look at a remarkably sturdy little costume.

Isabelle has been taking ballet for three years. Now she and her classmates are getting ready to dance with a professional company, and they will wear real tutus for the first time. Ms. Chevance's pastel pencil illustrations show the painstaking work 40 hours worth -- that goes into piecing together one of the outfits, with its tight-fitting bodice and seven layers of ruffled skirt.

* Finally, two books do a good job of making ballet stories accessible to children.

"Of Swans, Sugarplums and Satin Slippers" by Violette Verdy, illustrated by Marcia Brown (Scholastic, $15.95, ages 7-11), tells the stories of "The Firebird," "Coppelia," "Swan Lake," "The Nutcracker," "Giselle" and "Sleeping Beauty." Ms. Verdy was a principal ballerina with the New York City Ballet from 1958 to 1976, and as she introduces each story, she tells readers about performing the ballet.

Ms. Verdy has an easy style. Ms. Brown, a three-time Caldecott Medal winner, adds a naive grace with her paintings. It's definitely a keepsake for any young dance fan.

On the darker side is "Petrouchka: The Story of the Ballet," illustrated by John Collier and retold by Vivian Werner (Viking, $16, ages 7 and up). First performed by Vaslav Nijinsky in 1911, "Petrouchka" became a symbol of the turmoil in early 20th-century Russia.

Mr. Collier's haunting pastel-and-gouache illustrations are perfect for the story of the pathetic clown puppet. Petrouchka longs to escape the Old Magician who keeps him imprisoned and forces him to dance in front of jeering crowds. "If only they knew he had a heart, Petrouchka thought, these people wouldn't laugh at him."

Petrouchka proves to be more human than most of the people around him. In the climax, the puppet is destroyed, but Petrouchka gains his freedom.

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