The Little Ballerina That Could


This month I continue to showcase my historical novel, The Grace of the Hunchback. The book was inspired by the real life of the 19th-century dancer, Marie Taglioni. Along with her father, Philippe, an influential choreographer, Marie developed the Romantic style of ballet: toe-dancing, ethereal costumes, and athletic pirouettes executed with disarming ease.

Marie was born with what we would now call scoliosis, a curvature of the spine that today–if detected early enough–can be cured by wearing a brace. Marie’s scoliosis was not treated and she spent her childhood with a curved back, which earned her the nickname “hunchback”–a taunt hurled at her by the other little girls in dance class. Interestingly, Marie’s rigorous practice of dance did help her spine to straighten (though she would often be in pain after a performance).  On stage, Marie was the epitome of cool, unattainable beauty. Offstage she would suffer all of her life from the psychological image she had of herself: an ugly duckling who would never be a swan.

Though born into a prominent theater family, Marie had to fight against tremendous odds to secure her place in the pantheon of famous ballerinas. Her story remains an inspiring one, full of grit and determination. It’s hard to leap that high; she just made it look easy!

For another take on scoliosis, check out Deenie by Judy Blume.  The heroine is a thirteen-year-old aspiring model who learns she must wear a body brace for at least three years, to correct her crooked spine. I read this book when I was 13 and it was the first time I had ever heard of scoliosis.  Deenie is not just about a medical condition, but about how to overcome an obstacle that you think will ruin your life but instead changes it for the better. The Grace of the Hunchback is intended for older audiences but both books convey many of the same messages.

Historical Tidbit: In Victorian times, a backboard was often used to elicit good posture. Made of wood, a girl was required to hook her arms around the edges and hold the position, until told she could stop. If you can’t find one of these, you can always use a good old-fashioned book:



When I was a little girl I had a lovely old book called “To Dance, To Dream” by Maxine Drury; I found it discarded in my basement, among a heap of old toys and other discarded treasures.  The nonfiction book highlighted the childhoods of various ballerinas, including Marie Taglioni, the subject of my novel “The Grace of the Hunchback.” Marie’s story talked about her determination to overcome what we now call scoliosis, a curvature of the spine; and to rise above the ugly duckling image and bullying to which she was subjected. “The Grace of the Hunchback”, my novel about Marie, is ultimately about her triumph over loneliness and abandonment to become, onstage, the epitome of beauty.  It’s now available for sale on Amazon:

I would never have known about Marie if not for “To Dance, To Dream.” Though I believe Maxine Drury’s compelling book is out of print,  it can still be obtained in used editions:

Here is the description:

“Down through the centuries, many men and women have danced with exceptional skill and grace, but we do not know their names. It was not until the seventeenth century, when art and entertainment began to emerge from the courts into public theaters, that the names of dancers began to be remembered and recorded. In the nearly 300 years since then, many men and women have gained renown for their dancing skill. To select the greatest of these performers would be an impossible task. Still more impossible would be an attempt to define their greatness, for, like the art of a great painter or great musician, the art of the dancer cannot be described in words. But there have been during these centuries, and there are today, men and women who, in addition to their greatness as performers, have developed an ideal of what dance should be, and perhaps more importantly, they have had the intelligence and determination to advance toward that ideal. These are the men and women who have helped to transform dance from what it was 300 years ago to what it is today. Chosen from among these are the dancers whose stories make up this book. Their contributions are of many different kinds. Some changed the style of ballet, like Salle and Fokine. Others originated new styles of dancing, like Duncan, or revived neglected ones, like La Argentina. Some worked to reach wider audiences, like Pavlova. Still others were the first to gain recognition for their country in the field of ballet, like Fonteyn and Tallchief. Although their contributions were distinctive, these men and women had a similar dedication of body, mind, and spirit to the life they chose. They were all alike, moreover, in that they left the dance a more vital and meaningful field for those who came after them. To Dance, To Dream includes the biographies of Jean Baptiste Lully, Marie Salle, Marie Taglioni, Isadora Duncan, Michel Fokine, Anna Pavlova, La Argentina, Ted Shawn, Margot Fonteyn, and Maria Tallchief.”

They are wonderful tales for children and adults alike; who knows what they might inspire?