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A Very Young Dancer
November 17, 2011 12:55 PM   Subscribe

In 1975, 10-year-old Stephanie was followed by photographer Jill Krementz as the subject of the book A Very Young Dancer (Stephanie was a student at the School of American Ballet, and was chosen by George Balanchine to play Marie in that year's production of the Nutcracker. Now, 34 years later, the New York Times has found her again.
posted by ChuraChura (26 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interesting, thanks for posting!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:11 PM on November 17, 2011


That was a rather bizarre article. It started out like having been made famous as a child for being a dancer nearly ruined her life. In reality, she was simply someone from a well-to-do who danced for a time as a child. I understand her book had an impact on those who love dance but it was hardly a tragic story.
posted by shoesietart at 1:35 PM on November 17, 2011 [5 favorites]



I remember reading that book when I was a kid and being very impressed. It's nice to check in on faded memories from one's childhood.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:35 PM on November 17, 2011


Huh, that brings back memories: I read this series of books (A Very Young Dancer, A Very Young Gymnast, A Very Young Rider) when I was in elementary and junior high school. In retrospect, there's some stuff in those books that would probably raise a lot of eyebrows today, like the girl in a A Very Young Rider casually mentioning that her sister fainted from the low-cal diet her trainer had put her on. As a kid, I didn't think that these books concealed how hard the training was, unlike, say, a contemporary book about the Royal Ballet School (which made the program seem all "Whee! Isn't this teh awesomest!"--or the 1970s equivalent, anyway).
posted by thomas j wise at 1:40 PM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's tragic in as much that what from the outside looked to many like a dream, a very lucky girl destined to become a great dancer was in actuality a far more human and flawed story than it appeared at first glance.
posted by zeoslap at 1:42 PM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't know, it did seem sad to me. I mean, not tragic, but I feel bad that the adults in her life couldn't help her see her time at the school and especially in The Nutcracker as a special time in her life that wasn't meant to last forever, and was beautifully documented in a nice keepsake book. Instead, it became a defining moment instead of a special but fleeting one.

In all, it sounds like she has had a nice life- being a horseback park ranger sounds pretty neat to me (although I wonder if there's more to the seizure story and relocating to the monastery- like maybe some drug use.), but she didn't have the right temperament to balance the early success in dance with being more normal later on.

I don't know, I did like the article and find some sadness in it. It didn't upset me the way the NYT's usual "plight of the privileged" muck does.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 1:44 PM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


I actually remember the A Very Young Model book -- and picking it up when I was older gave me an eerie shock as the child model they focus on mentions her friend Brooke who's also a model. The book's subject also mentions that she's just been contacted to be in a movie -- actually, she and her friend Brooke are both up for the part -- her mother's checking the script out, but she knows it's about a girl who gets shipwrecked at a lagoon and they fall in love and...

Yeah. It sounds, reading through the lines, like they offered this other girl the part first, and her mother turned it down so it went to "her friend Brooke" instead. It was a jarring sort of "what might have been" moment.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:47 PM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't see any attempt to paint her story as tragic in the article, and I don't have any difficulty at all imagining that it would have been very difficult for someone featured in a book of that kind to deal with being booted out of her ballet class. She's the most famous ballet dancer of her age in the world and suddenly she has to decide whether or not to own up to being told she's not good enough? Yeah, that's going to hurt, regardless of whether or not your family is well off.

Not every story in the world has to be about overcoming grinding poverty to be worthy of our sympathetic interest.
posted by yoink at 1:49 PM on November 17, 2011 [5 favorites]


A Very Young Gymnast

I think my hometown library's glossy copy of this one still has my grubby handprints all over it from the months I spent poring over it. My not-so-secret dream was to be taken away to gymnastics boarding school and spend all my time tumbling before several Olympic appearances. Luckily, the teachers at the local Y were kind enough not to disabuse me of this notion and I gradually figured out on my own that I couldn't do an unsupported handstand, and that was kind of important to the whole "Olympic medalist" thing.

That entire series, plus some other fictional ones I remember (one about a group of elite show riders, another about gymnasts, a third about figure skaters) were like the rocket fuel of my childhood. I wonder if most kids loved them for the same reason I did- the idea that, even at 8 or 10 years old, you could be deeply special and talented at something, and the adults around you would notice and encourage you and even do wild things like move to another state to find the best gymnastics coach. The NYT article seems to lean in that direction in the paragraphs about current professional ballerinas who obsessed over A Very Young Dancer.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 1:51 PM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


(although I wonder if there's more to the seizure story and relocating to the monastery- like maybe some drug use.)

The fact that they didn't mention the cause of the seizure=drug use. If it wasn't, they would have said "undiagnosed congenital brain disorder" or something more formal.

I'm amazed sometimes at how the media sweeps drug use under the rug, but that's an entirely different topic...

Otherwise, yeah, good article. Nice "where are they now" feature.
posted by Melismata at 1:53 PM on November 17, 2011


God, how awesome is Jill Krementz.
posted by penduluum at 2:10 PM on November 17, 2011


The Chronicle of the Horse ran a remarkably parallel story about the kid from A Very Young Rider. Her sister went on to ride professionally but died in a fall earlier this year.
posted by rdc at 2:28 PM on November 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


Finding her new place in the world — after the attention that came with the book — was a long and painful journey littered with troubled relationships and financial struggles, with moments of deep darkness and depression.

I don't have an issue with her being well-to-do and certainly income doesn't prevent one from suffering. I just thought she had a rather good life as put forth in the article that didn't coincide with the above. And she basically flunked out because she didn't go to class, which while embarrassing, is her own fault. (And I do realize she was a child and kids do this all time - think music lessons and not practicing.)

In my opinion, the article treated her as a tragic subject when she turned out pretty well. I think she and her mother did her a disservice by lying. Lying made it a shameful secret. Maybe saying, "I got booted cause I goofed off too much. I just wasn't enthusiastic about it anymore." would have been better.
posted by shoesietart at 2:30 PM on November 17, 2011


You asked, How awesome is Jill Krementz?

She was married to Kurt Vonnegut. That's how awesome.
posted by borborygmi at 2:33 PM on November 17, 2011 [7 favorites]


Maybe saying, "I got booted cause I goofed off too much. I just wasn't enthusiastic about it anymore." would have been better.

I think looking back as an adult that might have been a better strategy, but as a child I think that would be even more crushing. Because the next question might be 'well why did you turn the opportunity.'

I am fascinated by the range of jobs she went through and how many of them seem to be about being the very opposite of what being a star is all about and about focussing on others: the monastery, working with the homeless and so forth. That's not touted at all, and it seems like it should be; here's someone who could have stayed and tried to remain the object of fannish worship, but chose a very different path. Very impressive; this woman is someone I'd love to meet.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:35 PM on November 17, 2011


Lying made it a shameful secret. Maybe saying, "I got booted cause I goofed off too much. I just wasn't enthusiastic about it anymore." would have been better.

Jesus, she was a kid -- a kid who had become famous for something she was now being asked to quit. I'm perfectly OK with cutting her some slack for being confused as to how to handle the situation.
posted by scody at 3:03 PM on November 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


She apparently did not meet Balanchine's criterion of people who "have to dance". So her childhood starring role was a one off. Makes you wonder how much pushing came from her mother, Linn, who studied modern dance with Alwin Nikolais.
posted by Cranberry at 4:10 PM on November 17, 2011


And she basically flunked out because she didn't go to class, which while embarrassing, is her own fault.

You seem to have missed the bit of the story where she was famous all over the English speaking world as a young up-and-coming ballet star of the future.
posted by yoink at 4:22 PM on November 17, 2011


Jesus, she was a kid -- a kid who had become famous for something she was now being asked to quit. I'm perfectly OK with cutting her some slack for being confused as to how to handle the situation.

I can understand the confusion of not knowing how to handle it at the time. This wasn't a criticism, merely an observation. I'm sure they handled it as best they could but good intentions can have unintended consequences and I think lying may have made it harder. Lying creates fear and she was already burdened by her celebrity. She honestly did seem to have lost her enthusiasm for ballet and it must have been awful to not know how to bow out gracefully.
posted by shoesietart at 4:40 PM on November 17, 2011


Oh I LOVED these books and always look for them when I go to Powell's. I remember Katherine Healy was the subject of "A Very Young Skater". She turned pro at age 11 and also starred in the film "Six Weeks." She was also a serious ballerina and, like "A Very Young Dancer," starred as Marie in Balanchine's Nutcracker. She went on to a professional career in ballet. After graduating from Princeton no less.
posted by girlhacker at 6:26 PM on November 17, 2011


She was married to Kurt Vonnegut. That's how awesome.

Did he find her through the book?
posted by Yakuman at 6:35 PM on November 17, 2011


I wonder if most kids loved them for the same reason I did- the idea that, even at 8 or 10 years old, you could be deeply special and talented at something, and the adults around you would notice and encourage you and even do wild things like move to another state to find the best gymnastics coach.

I loved books like that too as a kid. And I'd guess the success of Harry Potter shows that we're not the only ones.
posted by lunasol at 10:03 PM on November 17, 2011


This is really sad, but not because she didn't become a dancer.

Someone, early on, apparently gave her the idea that the absolute worst thing that could ever happen to her, ever, was to fail, in public, at anything.

That, not dancing or being in the book, is what seems to have had a terrible effect on her life - she seems to have had a very rocky path, ending as a religious recluse. The adults who encouraged her to lie, or went along with her lying, about what happened for 30 years (the article implies, but doesn't say, that her mother and the adults in charge at school encouraged her story) seem to be at least partially at fault for the effects of the lying - a 13-year-old can't be blamed for what would have seemed like a totally logical face-saving position.

Compare her path to that of the Very Young Skater girl...who was very forthright, about having quit skating because she became more enthusiastic about other things that skating got in the way of. (As I recall, the book itself makes reference to her ballet performance being hurt by skating..but at the time, she was doing ballet only to improve her skating.) She not only succeeded in what she wanted to do (dancing), she seems to have had no negative effects from her childhood quasi-stardom).
posted by Wylla at 3:18 AM on November 18, 2011


I'm sure that her suffering was significant, but the article didn't make it sound as bad as I had expected. I remember working in a theater in college, and talking to a dancer about dance. She talked about eating disorders, and how point shoes were filled with concrete in the tips. I remember thinking how the shoes could be used as a primitive hammer (naively not thinking about how the dancer's toes would be curled under, supporting her whole body weight on about three square inches). Ballet can be brutal on the dancers long before they appear on stage.

It sounds like Stephanie has her act together now, and is relatively happy. Good for her.
posted by dfm500 at 9:07 AM on November 18, 2011


Pointe shoes are actually not concrete tips, but layers of canvas and cardboard hardened with glue. You're not supporting your weight on your toes exactly ... it's sort of distributed around your foot and ankle, but especially the point of your foot that's the broadest.

A Very Young Dancer was really important to me as a kid. I think I got it as a present the year I was in my first Nutcracker (as a dancing teddy bear). I wasn't nearly serious enough of a ballet student to go on to dance professionally, I have the wrong body type and my feet were never good enough. But I loved it so much that about as early as I can remember, it's been an important part of my life. I danced through college as a non-major, and I take ballet classes now even though I'm in grad school studying something completely different. But one doesn't have to develop an eating disorder for ballet to be brutal. There's something kind of melancholy about something like ballet where, no matter how hard you work, what company you're in, what kid's ballet class you're taking, you're just never quite good enough. That's a hard feeling to have define you from the age of 13 on.
posted by ChuraChura at 9:39 AM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


The fact that they didn't mention the cause of the seizure=drug use. If it wasn't, they would have said "undiagnosed congenital brain disorder" or something more formal.

What? No, not disclosing the cause of the seizure certainly does not 'equal' drug use. First of all, if you're going to go with cheap straight-up stereotypes, the "obvious" cause of a seizure in a former dancer would be potassium/sodium imbalance due to bulimia. Secondly, there are a whole lot of causes of seizures, including "unknown."
posted by desuetude at 1:43 AM on November 19, 2011


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