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Dancers are more often admired for their physicality than their intellect, but many dance professionals and enthusiasts enjoy reading. There are all sorts of dance books for dancers: dance biographies, fictional dance stories and volumes about dance history, choreography, technique and specialised dance fields. They make great gifts for dancers, so browse through our list of dance literature for your dance friends – or to add to more dance books to your own collection.
Table of Contents
- Dance Biographies and Autobiographies
- Dance History Books
- Dance Choreography Books
- Dance Technique and Training Books
- Dance Education Books
Dance Biographies & Autobiographies
The lives of great dance artists are both fascinating and inspiring. A dance biography not only offers insight into the important milestones during dance artists’ lives, it can also share the artists’ philosophies or reveal their personal quirks.
The dance biographies and autobiographies are first listed by genre, then by alphabetical order of surnames.
Although Dame Darcey Andrea Bussell may be most well-known for her judging stint on Britain’s Strictly Come Dancing ballroom dancing television show, her background is firmly in ballet. She initially gained fame during as a principal dancer in London’s Royal Ballet and performed as a guest artist in other renowned ballet companies around the world. Although sparse on text as compared with true dance biographies, the following dance books include gorgeous photos of Bussell throughout her ballet career.
Darcey Bussell: Evolved by Hardie Grant
& Darcey Bussell: A Life In Pictures by Hardie Grant
Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina by Misty Copeland and Charisse Jones
Unlike most professional ballerinas, Misty Copeland did not begin dancing until she was a teenager. However, her talent propelled her to join the American Ballet Theatre – and she produced a lot of buzz when she became the first female principal dancer of African American descent with the American Ballet Theatre. Since then, she has been a role model for many aspiring dancers, not only for her ethnicity, but also for her athletic physique.
Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin
One of our favourite dance movies was originally a memoir by former Chinese-Australian ballet dancer, Li Cunxin, who was selected attend the Beijing Dance Academy as a child. In this memoir, he writes about his early years of dancing and how he defected from China to the USA. Once he rescinded his Chinese citizenship, he went on to dance with Houston Ballet for more than a decade and eventually became a principal dancer for The Australian Ballet. Cunxin later assumed the position of Artistic Director for the Queensland Ballet in Brisbane.
Mao’s Last Dancer won the Australian Book of the Year award after it was published in 2003.
Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina by Michaela DePrince
Michaela DePrince’s inspirational journey begins at an orphanage in war-torn Sierra Leone. When she found a magazine with a photo of a ballerina, DePrince also found hope and determination to become as strong and graceful. Her adopted American family signed her up for ballet class and Michaela eventually enrolled in the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at the American Ballet Theatre. She now dances roles as a soloist with Dutch National Ballet Company.
Margot Fonteyn by Meredith Daneman
Margot Fonteyn, who danced alongside Rudolf Nureyev, performed with London’s Royal Ballet, previously known as Vic-Wells Ballet and Sadler’s Wells Ballet. The British dancer found international acclaim during a company tour of the United States, and she earned the title ‘Dame’. Later in her career, she famously partnered Rudolf Nureyev.
Mega-fans of Centre Stage will also recall a nod to the ballerina with the quote: “Well, when Margot Fonteyn was on stage, you couldn’t tear your eyes away from her.” And from 2020, the prestigious Genée will be renamed the Margot Fonteyn International Ballet Competition.
Rudolf Nureyev: The Life by Julie Kavanagh
Rudolf Nureyev is widely considered one of the greatest ballet dancers of all time for both his technique and artistry. His began his early career with the Kirov Ballet (now known as the Mariinsky Ballet) in St. Petersburg, Russia; but he defected from the Soviet Union. Nureyev later danced with The Royal Ballet in London, where he partnered Dame Margot Fonteyn, and ended his career with the Paris Opera Ballet. Here, he assumed the roles of chief choreographer and director. Nureyev re-staged ballet classics, such as Giselle and Swan Lake, and his funeral took place in the grand foyer of the Paris Garnier Opera House.
Modern Dance Biographies
Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture by Thomas F. DeFrantz
Alvin Ailey is the founder of AAADT – or the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. His most famous piece, Revelations, is frequently performed in concerts with other contemporary dance pieces, such as Rennie Harris’ Lazarus, which was loosely based on Ailey’s life. Dancing Revelations by Thomas DeFrantz follows the company’s journey from its humble beginnings through its transformation into a ‘premier [institution] of African American culture.’ The book also emphasizes the company’s scope of work, in relation to social and historical contexts, including the fight for civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights. Finally, the book explains how Ailey drew upon African dance elements with blues-y dance motifs and jazz-based moves to choreograph his unique works.
Merce Cunningham: After the Arbitrary by Carrie Noland
If you’ve seen the 3-D Cunningham Film and you’re looking to learn more about the New York City-based modern dance choreographer, you can find out more about this prolific dance artist in his biography. Merce Cunningham: After the Arbitrary takes a look at the choreographer’s entire career, as well as his artistic philosophies. Author Carrie Noland isn’t afraid to delve into the nuance of Cunningham’s creative process, including how he both incorporated and limited random chance in his dances. She also explores his relationship with other prominent artists of the time: John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Bill T. Jones and James Joyce.
My Life by Isadora Duncan
Isadora Duncan is known as an American modern dance pioneer. She moved from Oakland, California to Chicago before dancing in New York. However, Duncan spent a significant portion of her later life in Europe. Isadora Duncan’s dance experiments paved the way for Ruth St Denis and Agnes de Mille; and her career inspired Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan by Frederick Ashton and served as the starting point for UNDA by Joy Alpuerto Ritter (featured in Viviana Durante Company’s Isadora Now). Duncan’s autobiography discusses her interest in classical music, poetry and art, as well as events from her personal life.
Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora by Joanna Dee Das
Katherine Dunham was an influential African American dancer, whose company toured the world. She also set up her own dance schools and conducted anthropological research about dance. In Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora, Joanna Dee Das points out how Dunham’s dance was intertwined with activism, addressing racism and sexism. She claims Dunham viewed and use dance as a ‘tool of liberation, as a way for people of African descent to reclaim their history and forge a new future.’
Martha Graham: Blood Memory: An Autobiography by Martha Graham
Martha Graham is widely considered the founder of the modern dance movement. Graham set up studio in New York City and created a completely new type of dance. In contrast to ballet, Graham’s modern dance style includes floorwork and contractions of the torso. However, Graham still referred to her choreography as ballets – with many works inspired by history and mythology. She worked with my great artists of her time and choreographed just over 180 works during her career.
Graham was crowned ‘dancer of the century’ by TIME Magazine and she even featured in a Google Doodle in May 2011 to celebrate her 117th birthday.
The Maddie Diaries: My Story by Maddie Ziegler
Maddie Ziegler’s initial claim to fame was her role in the reality TV show, Dance Moms. But she has certainly grown as a person and dancer since her premiere in 2011 at the age of 8. Since then, she has starred in Sia’s Chandelier music video, served as judge of So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation and modeled for Capezio and Ralph Lauren alike. The young dancer’s memoir reveals the hard work she put into her career and answers some of her fans’ most curious questions.
The Maddie Diaries was a New York Times Best Seller.
Dance History Books
Dance has a long history in different cultures around the world, so it makes sense that historical dance volumes trace the evolution of certain dance styles. These dance history books provide context for many different kinds of dance, including ballet, which began as a European court dance without high kicks, soaring leaps and dizzying pirouettes.
Dance History: An Introduction by Janet Adshead-Lansdale
This book about the history of dance was first published by Dance Books, London in 1983. Its popularity as an academic dance textbook prompted the release of its second edition. The first part discusses the methodology of dance history before transitioning into historical studies of dance in part two. This section includes chapters on ceremonial English dance, traditional West Africa dance and American modern dance, among others – and is authored by a variety of dance historians. The third and final part covers writing dance history and the study of dance history in general. All in all, this dance history book examines a good cross-section of dance traditions.
Irish Dancing: The Festival Story by Angeline King
Riverdance may be the most well-known example of Irish dance today, but Irish dancing has a long and interesting history. Irish Dancing: The Festival Story takes readers to ballrooms, barn dances and festivals to explore the many instances when Irish people united in dance. The book touches on specific towns that contributed to the growth in popularity of Irish dance and highlights the community’s championship-winning dancers, as well as their influential teachers. This well-researched account traces Irish dance back from the 1700s to the multitude of Irish dancers around the world today.
Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches edited by Lindsay Guarino and Wendy Oliver
The Jazz Age swept across the USA in the 1920s, after World War I. Although most dancers automatically think of musical theater choreographer Robert Louis Fosse (more popularly known as Bob Fosse) when they think of jazz, jazz dance was seen in the ballrooms and dance halls way before Broadway. The African American music style inspired early jazz dances, such as the Charleston, Jitterbug and Lindy Hop. However, the book Jazz Dance inspects how the dance style has developed since the 1960s. It views the evolution of jazz dance, including its trends and training methods, while incorporating insight from famous jazz dancers.
Sometimes choreographing comes easily in a wave of inspiration. Oftentimes, creating dance is a difficult task. Books on dance choreography help artists to think of new ways to approach the dance making process. They may inform choreographers about composition techniques, like repetition and variation, or give them specific exercises to follow.
A Choreographer’s Handbook by Jonathan Burrows
If you’re stumped on your latest dance project, why not try choreographic exercises from UK-based choreographer Jonathan Burrows? He danced as a soloist in with The Royal Ballet in London before forming the Jonathan Burrows Group to create and present his own work. A Choreographer’s Handbook touches on Burrows’ own personal process and artistic journey, and it incorporates lessons he gained from facilitating dance-making discussions for five years. His choreography book claims it is “for anyone interested in making performance, at whatever level and in whichever style.”
Changes: Notes on Choreography by Merce Cunningham
Merce Cunningham was a prolific American modern dance choreographer, who created hundreds of pieces. “He challenged traditional ideas of dance, such as the roles of the dancers and the audience, the limitations of the stage, and the relationships between movement and beauty,” according to the Merce Cunningham Trust website. Whether you particularly enjoy watching his work or find it rather challenging, Cunningham was a true innovator and did not stray from his vision to please his audiences. The biographical 3D Cunningham film by Dogwoof includes excerpts from Cunningham’s book, Changes: Notes on Choreography, as well as excerpts from 20+ of his works.
If you’re interested in Cunningham’s work, see what we learned at the Merce Cunningham Centennial Celebration at The Guggenheim Works & Process Series.
Choreography: Creating and Developing Dance for Performance by Kate Flatt
This book will help choreographers better understand the dance-making process from start to finish. It explores conceptualizing a piece and improvisation, followed by context and stage geometry. Choreography: Creating and Developing Dance for Performance discusses the movement of the body in both time and space, as well as choreography for soloists, pairs and groups. Dancers will also learn how to select and create dance with music. To end, the dance choreography book covers the overall structure of a dance piece.
Dance Technique and Training Books
Working to perfect physical dance technique is an eternal struggle. There will always be some aspect to improve. Books about dance technique help dancers to understand how they can better their form. Some books specifically discuss anatomy and physiology, while others may offer poetic similes to help dancers approach individual steps.
Anatomy, Dance Technique and Injury Prevention: Volume 4 by Justin Howse and Moira Mccormack
Understanding the structure of the body can help dancers understand what needs to happen on a muscular and skeletal level to achieve certain movements. Improper dance technique can lead to injuries, which not only require significant recovery time, they can also abruptly shorten a dancer’s career as a performing artist. This book about proper dance technique looks at both the causes of and treatments for general and specific injuries, as well as physiotherapy; and it also contains strengthening exercises to correct physical imbalances. Anatomy, Dance Technique and Injury Prevention provides valuable information for professional and recreational dancers alike.
Dance Imagery for Technique and Performance by Eric Franklin
Dance teachers come up with fascinating similes. (We love them and even quote the founder of Lazy Dancer Tips Alessia Lugoboni as saying, “Don’t cashew that foot!” in our recap of the best free online ballet barre videos.) So if you’re stuck in a rut and looking for a little inspiration, pick up this book on dance imagery. The first part looks at how dancers can use imagery to improvize, while the second section shows how to apply imagery in dance technique classes. The third segment inspects how imagery can enhance choreography and performance, and the book closes with restorative exercises that pair guided imagery with massage and stretching.
Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet by Gail Grant
If you ever forget the names of ballet steps, you will certainly find this ballet dictionary useful. It defines of more than 800 French ballet terms and includes a handy pronunciation guide if French isn’t your forte. Additionally, the ballet book discusses how positions vary across different ballet traditions (whether they’re Russian, French or Italian), and cross-references alternate names for steps that are similar. For example, passé and retiré are often conflated, so it marks the relationship between the two terms. This is a must-have for any ballet enthusiast, especially those studying to pass a ballet exam.
Dance Education Books
Teaching dance is a common job for dancers, so there there is lots of literature about dance pedagogy. Books about dance education can help dance instructors to plan dance lessons, or they can help dance teachers to understand the logistics of running a successful dance studio. Some dance education material may be more useful for teaching dance technique, while others will better aid those leading creative dance classes.
Creative Dance for All Ages by Anne Green Gilbert
Dance isn’t always about technique. Creative Dance is more about the process of making dance and can help participants to learn about and demonstrate scientific concepts. (Think ‘Dance Your PhD’ videos.) Or economic theories. Or anything anything from social science to mathematics. Teaching this type of dance may sound abstract, but Gilbert’s Creative Dance for All Ages lays out the theory and methodology of this practice. It also includes lesson ideas for a variety of students in different settings, in addition to assessments forms. Creative dance is taught in some elementary schools, but it can be taught to people of all age groups.
Dance Education Around the World by Charlotte Svendler Nielsen
If you’ve spent your entire childhood at the same dance studio, you probably never thought about what dance classes are like at other academies – much less about dance education in other countries. However, Dance Education Around the World shares findings from dance educators in Europe, the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific. Topics include the development of dance curriculum, how to assess learning and empowering communities with dance programs. It always touches upon what dance education may look like in the future.
The Dance School Owner’s Survival Guide: Everything You Need To Set Up And Run A Successful Dance School by Sarah Gittins
There’s more to running a profitable dance studio than teaching and hiring fantastic dance educators. The Dance School Owner’s Survival Guide will help dance studio owners to understand where to find your target customers and how to increase student enrollment through marketing initiatives. It also covers legal matters and how to budget. Managing a dance school can be overwhelming, especially for new owners, but this book can help set you you on the right track. Sarah Gittins shares her own first-hand experience to save you time and money.
Which dance books are you most looking forward to reading? Or sharing with your dance friends? Tell us what you’ve read lately and what you’re dying to read now in the comments below!
Dance We Do recently released by poet Ntozake Shange offers a glimpse into the culture of BlackDance that is normally omitted from the American Dance Canon. Including it in this list is imperative in order to balance the scales of historical truth necessary during this time of hopeful transparency.