Kid Lit Review of “My Story, My Dance: Robert Battle’s Journey to Alvin Ailey” by Lesa Cline-Ransome

In 1958, a group of young dancers led by choreographer Alvin Ailey performed for the first time. The style of dance was modern, drawing inspiration from Ailey’s “blood memories” of growing up in Texas, along with the influences of blues, spirituals, and gospel. Judith Jamison, internationally famous from her time as a dancer in the company, succeeded Mr. Ailey as artistic director in 1989, and she in turn selected Robert Battle to be her successor in 2011.

Judith Jamison in “Facets,” 1976. Photo by Jack Mitchell, courtesy of Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

This story for kids is about Robert Battle, a man who, as Lesa Cline-Ransome writes, “faced the unique challenge of telling his own story while preserving the legacy of Alvin Ailey.” She indicates in her note that Battle and Ailey never met, but they had a lot in common as dancers and choreographers, and both had a sense of history, passion, and purpose that translated into “brilliant artistic visions for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.”

Cline-Ransome tells the story of how as a child, Robert wore braces on his legs to straighten them:

“For years, Robert felt the pain and heard the clank of metal whenever he moved his legs. Trying to walk, he fell down time and again, until finally his legs got straighter and stronger.”

When the braces finally came off when Robert was six, he started to dance. Because that hobby encouraged bullying, his mother got him to study martial arts, which also made his legs even stronger.

At thirteen, Robert began ballet lessons at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center in Miami. He wanted to be the first Black Baryshnikov, the famed Russian ballet dancer. In high school, Robert accompanied his dance class to see the Alvin Ailey Dance Company: “Robert saw his past and his future, and he saw himself.”

He was accepted into the New World School of the Arts in Miami, spending two years there. Then he was given a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York. He won awards at Juilliard and was invited to join the Parsons Dance Company in New York City, where he choreographed dances. In 2001 he began his own dance company called Battleworks, which performed to rave reviews. Judith Jamison saw his work, and wanted it to be a part of the Alvin Ailey Company. Ten years later, he started as their new artistic director. In announcing his appointment as Artistic Director, Jamison stated: “Combining an intimate knowledge of the Ailey company with an independent perspective, Robert Battle is without question the creative force of the future.”

Robert Battle of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Credit Ike Edeani for The New York Times

Illustrator James E. Ransome wrote in his note that he called on the impressionist tradition of depicting dance in pastels to capture the color, movement, and fluidity of the Alvin Ailey dancers. He did a lovely job.

Back matter includes an Author’s Note, Illustrator’s Note, bibliography, guide to further reading, and links to video and radio sources.

Evaluation: Why boys who express their athleticism and grace through dance should be an object of scorn is beyond me, but apparently it still happens. Yet even football players practice ballet; it helps them with focus, flexibility, speed, strength, endurance, and balance. The story of how Battle overcame that obstacle and the others in his life is inspiring in all kinds of ways.

Rating: 4/5

A Paula Wiseman Book, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2015

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