“I’m doing a grand yeti!” trilled Dulcie as she threw some rather Martha Graham-esque moves around the bedroom. “And I am as light as a fairy,” as she crashed into a chair. I smiled indulgently. I like this game; I am the appreciative audience and get to sit down. Himself the Elf is captivated by his sister’s moves and has pulled himself into a standing position leaning on the chest of drawers, all the better to squeal his encouragement to her. Peace?
Shattered. “HE can’t do ballet! He is bouncing along and only girls can do ballet,” bosses Dulcie. No-one can do self-righteousness in quite the style of a three year old, I find. “Anyone can do anything,” I pointlessly say, knowing it will be disregarded instantly. “I am taking off my tutu,” she declares. Helpfully, it is an imaginary tutu, so my assistance isn’t needed. “Shall we read Dogs Don’t Do Ballet?” I suggest, keeping in the theme and trying to be a good mother. “Just let me put the Elf to bed first…”
I’m going to be honest here. I am a ballet nut. I adore it. The music, the grace, the costumes, the absurd stories where girls can go mad and dance themselves to death because of a disappointing romance. I seriously wanted to be a dancer when I was younger and trained pretty hard before discovering booze, and pubs, and boys, and snogging. So I understand Dulcie’s love of a book about ballet. But in spite of that, most books about ballet aimed at pre-schoolers make me want to scream (or dance myself to death so I don’t ever have to read them again). They are full of lazy wish-fulfillment, prissy sentiments and saccharine pastel pictures. Angelina Ballerina by Katharine Holabird and Helen Craig is just about all right, I suppose (the pictures are simply too sweet for words), but the sequels? Pah.
However, Dogs Don’t Do Ballet is a beast of a different sort. To start with, I don’t feel I’m drowning in pink, a sensation that most parents of three year old girls have probably experienced. Sara Ogilvie’s illustrations are vibrant and simple and fabulously capture the palette of emotions that the two protoganists experience. The nameless little girl narrating the story isn’t really that bothered about ballet – her lessons seem to occur once a week and are undertaken with a pretty realistic amount of enthusiasm, as she shown glumly pulling on her tights. She gets tickets for the Royal Ballet for her birthday, and yes, she’s pleased, but what she really wants is to take her dog along with her.
The real focus of the book is actually on her dog, Biff, who “isn’t like other dogs”. He won’t chase sticks and he isn’t interested in weeing on lampposts. Biff likes “music and moonlight and walking on his tiptoes”, and he is a dog who longs to be a ballet dancer. She can see no reason why he shouldn’t be a ballet dancer, but this point of view is scorned by her father and by her dance teacher (and also by Dulcie, at the beginning). After being evicted from her ballet class and following the little girl to the performance of the Royal Ballet, Biff finally gets his chance. Following a freak accident with the prima ballerina and a tuba, Biff sneaks onto the stage, having borrowed his owner’s tutu and starts to dance “like no dog has danced before”.
And this is portrayed with a double page of Biff in a montage of fabulous dance moves, a look of pure bliss on his puggish face. He is “as light as a sugar puff! As pretty as a fairy!” Finally, the orchestra stops playing and we’re left in terrible suspense. Will the audience agree with the previous adults in the book that dogs don’t do ballet, and crush his dreams forever? Poor Biff “gives a hopeful curtsey” and we are left in agony until a lady in the audience declares that this is dog that can do ballet. The rest of the audience – finally- goes wild, and even the girl’s father is forced to concede that yes, Biff is a ballerina after all.
“See,” I say morally, and perhaps a touch self-righteously, to Dulcie. “Anyone can do anything. There isn’t a rule about who can or cannot do ballet, or whether only boys can like tractors, or who can wear pink.” This is greeted with a sceptical pause from Dulcie. “Maybe,” she concedes. “But only I can do ballet and not my brother as he isn’t a dog.
“Now read that again.”