Review: Dancing in the Dark by Robyn Bavati

Dancing in the Dark by Robyn Bavati explores the double life of Ditty, a young Haredi Jew, when she discovers the beautiful world of ballet and the passion it invokes in her. Along with this passion the darkness of an invisible wall of fundamentalist religion held together by the rigidity of her family and community.

Bavati breathes life into Ditty's dream of dancing and the depth of deceit she had to descend into to bring her passion for dance into reality.

As a young girl, Ditty happens upon a DVD of The Nutcracker while watching television in a forbidden venue--her dear friend's mother had surreptitiously purchased a television that she hides far back in her closet. Ditty could not turn herself away from the transfixing dance before her.

The movements seemed to ripple through me as my  body flowed to the music, and my spirits lifted. I felt vulnerable and vibrant and intensely alive, bursting with feeling I hadn't know existed, couldn't name.

The  television and DVD player opens a door to another world.  Ditty and her friend become enamored with the life that spread before them. Ditty, at twelve begins to question the dictates of her faith that should, according to her religious parents and community, fill her with all the happiness and joy she could want.

But what, I wondered now, did they actually mean? I knew what I'd been taught – that happiness wasn't something a Jew should strive for, it was a bonus that came from keeping the laws and strictures that had been passed down from one generation to the next.

At twelve, Ditty's worries about her growing love of dance and with it, her sensitivity to the everyday beauty she now feels as she never before did.

But loving ballet also leaves her struggling, with an inner turmoil swirling in her mind. Ditty has been taught what constitutes sinful behavior; she is guilty.  She's dishonored her parents through her disobedience. She lied to keep her secret love of ballet from them. She's progressed into finding a way to covertly take dance classes at the Melbourne Dance Academy. As her dance skills develop and she displays a natural talent and affinity, her maturity and sophistication of thought grow as well. 

Dancing in the Dark tells a poignant story of a young girl who dares to follow her dream, to literally dance her way into another life. As Ditty grows more mature, her thoughts, analysis of her choices and her strength of character gave me affection and respect for her. Love for her family never wavers nor does her love of ballet. Paradoxically one must cancel out the other. Choices must be made.

Ditty's Haredi faith is insular with strict rules and codes of behavior. Like any religious group that will not tolerate free thought relative to faith and the dictates faithful behavior entails, it's a certainty that something as dramatic as Ditty's break from tradition will cause a severance of ties to family and community.

I felt Ditty's tumble of emotions as she tries to live two lives but knows choices will eventually be forced upon her.

There was a nostalgic part of me that longed to become again the little girl I used to be. There was something unbearably sad about knowing I couldn't.

Haredi family life filled Ditty with beautiful tradition, shared responsibilities and an enviable closeness between family and community. Without doubt, it offered solid ground for a future life. Rules and expectations had not changed for generations. Fundamentally religion offered certainty with obedience at its core.

There's something to be said for religion, something that maybe a lot of people overlook. For some people, it's a great way to enhance their self-esteem. Religion will take anyone. Even if you're not particularly smart, or particularly talented, and there's nothing you're especially good at, you can be “good” at religion.

She knew her father was good at religion as were her sisters and brothers. Her mother too was a good wife who Ditty believed would not question her husband's authority.

Dancing in the Dark is an apt title for Bavati's story of a young girl's struggle toward independence and the price it would extract.

Ditty wonders what it would be like to just be, to connect with others just because they're both human and share interests. Breaking away from a secure life into another where the pages are unwritten takes bravery. No attempt is made to glamorize or simplify the reality.

Sometimes fear strikes and other times serenity in the heart of a complex and deeply dedicated young woman.

I feel oddly serene. Maybe this feeling won't last, because the truth is, I just don't know where the future will take me. Maybe there will be moments of panic or fear, moments when I question whether what I did was right, but at least everything is out in the open now.

Elements of the novel may not seem plausible. Could a young girl fool her parents into believing she was elsewhere when she was actually in training to become a dancer? Is it plausible that she could earn enough money to pay for the lessons? What of the kindness of strangers?

My answer is that within the context of the novel, it's plausible and believable.

I found Dancing in the Dark significant on many levels. Religion happens to be the force that Ditty had to battle, but there are many constraints that go by other names.  Many people have faced a plethora of obstacles to live a life of their choosing. Ditty's beautiful exploration is filled with questions, and for Ditty answers to lead her to what is right for her. 

But how do we know what is right? I wanted to shout. Is something right because your parents or your rabbi told you it is. Or can a thing be inherently, intrinsically right? Don't human beings have an innate sense of what is right, anyway? And if we do, why can't we trust ourselves?

When I initially began reading Dancing in the Dark, I thought I wouldn't enjoy it. Ditty is a very young 12 years old at the beginning of the story, and I thought it would be more appropriate for younger readers and was even a bit juvenile. This was not helped by the early uneven pacing of the story. However, Dancing in the Dark follows Ditty through five years of deceit and passion, and as she grew, I became more invested in her story.

Ditty's story explores universal themes and questions presented in a thoughtfully-written book that left me thinking about the many choices we all make in life, why we make them and what results. 

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