A Novel

About the Book

A ballerina at the height of her powers becomes consumed with finding her missing brother in this “striking debut” (Oprah Daily).

“A compelling novel about the spiritual and bodily costs of the dogged pursuit of art.”—Raven Leilani, author of Luster


At twenty-two years old, Cece Cordell reaches the pinnacle of her career as a ballet dancer when she’s promoted to principal at the New York City Ballet. She’s instantly catapulted into celebrity, heralded for her “inspirational” role as the first Black ballerina in the famed company’s history. Even as she celebrates the achievement of a lifelong dream, Cece remains haunted by the feeling that she doesn’t belong. As she waits for some feeling of rightness that doesn’t arrive, she begins to unravel the loose threads of her past—an absent father, a pragmatic mother who dismisses Cece’s ambitions, and a missing older brother who stoked her childhood love of ballet but disappeared to deal with his own demons.

Soon after her promotion, Cece is faced with a choice that has the potential to derail her career and shatter the life she’s cultivated for herself, sending her on a pilgrimage to both find her brother and reclaim the parts of herself lost in the grinding machinery of the traditional ballet world.

Written with spellbinding beauty and ballet’s precise structure, Dances centers around women, art, and power, and how we come to define freedom for ourselves.
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Praise for Dances

“Immersive and visceral . . . an impressive debut that leaps, fearlessly.”The Washington Post

“Leap into the world of professional ballet in this fictitious and yet so-real tale of a young Black ballerina.”—Ebony


“You don’t have to know anything about ballet to start reading Nicole Cuffy’s lyrical debut about a Black principal ballerina with the New York City Ballet, but you’ll have a deep appreciation of it by the time you finish . . . a profound and captivating examination of family, ambition, power, and sacrifice.”—Bustle

“This debut novel by the author of a decorated work of short fiction, 2018’s Atlas of the Body, is an examination of the physical and spiritual costs all artists must pay in the pursuit of their art.”—The Millions

“A striking debut that centers on Cece Cordell, a Black rising star of the New York City Ballet, as she questions whether she will ever find fulfillment within the stern, ultra-white fortress of classical dance. Cuffy’s prose pours into Cece—head, heart, and body—and creates a moving portrait of an artist seeking to know herself and stretch the boundaries of her craft.”—Oprah Daily

“Nicole Cuffy sweeps us into the insider world of ballet with a voice that is beautiful and authentic. This is a singular debut, and a vivid portrait of the heartbreak of growing up and confronting the tension between family and career.”—Imbolo Mbue, author of How Beautiful We Were

Dances is a striking ode to the world of ballet, full of Cuffy’s lush descriptions of its glittery highs and its excruciating lows. Cece’s struggles with self-acceptance are achingly resonant, and this beautifully intertwined family saga and artist’s journey keeps readers en pointes, propelled through the steps of a ballerina’s whirlwind year.”—Leila Mottley, author of Nightcrawling

“Nicole Cuffy’s debut is a mesmerizing behind-the-scenes look at the world of ballet, as well as an achingly human search for belonging, in both family and art. Dances is a graceful and propulsive ode to those who fed our dreams, and how our dreams feed us.”—Kyle Lucia Wu, author of Win Me Something

“The closest thing most of us will ever experience to actually dancing the ballet and to life in a dancer’s body.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Brilliant . . . A ballet dancer herself, Cuffy brings grace, control, and vigor to her prose. Through Cece’s trials, the story movingly explores the secrets and inner demons of a performer who struggles with artistic competition, betrayal, guilt, family, and ‘the ever-present weight’ of her race. . . . Readers will be enchanted.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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The princess has shed some of her earlier shyness and learned to trust her suitors. Her smile is as confident and bright as a new coin; gone is her earlier hesitation. There is plain, fresh-­faced gratitude as she accepts a rose from each of her suitors. The roses are bright, white, scentless. She throws them, not cruelly but joyfully, almost ecstatically. It has been some fresh miracle, learning to trust these four princes, a dawning. No one has hurt her yet. She has not been hurt a day in her life, in fact, never so much as pricked her finger. She suspects that there is no such thing as suffering. She understands suffering in the abstract—­it is what made her shy of her suitors at first, but that they have not caused her pain makes its possibility even more remote. No one has let her down yet. She can almost believe there is no such thing.

I am the princess.

My reality is dual: I am Aurora, the white princess, just turned sixteen, who knows no suffering, and I am also Cece, the Black dancer of twenty-­two, whose toes are screaming from being en pointe for so long, who is sweating like a slave, and whose ankle is throbbing distantly from a slow-­healing sprain. I am counting as I dance—­there is little room in my head for much else, though for a flash I do wonder if I feel up to holding that last balance for a couple of extra beats. I step forward, taking my suitor’s hand as I rise en pointe in attitude derrière, ready for the first promenade. I am turned 360 degrees like a figurine, pivoting on the toes of my pointed foot, ankle protesting just outside the gates of my attention. I won’t hold the balance too long, but I’ll make sure to get my leg up nice and high in the arabesque to make up for it.

My second suitor approaches, and I steady myself, signaling the first suitor with a quick squeeze when I am ready for him to let go of my hand. For a brief moment, I am unsupported—­or rather, I support myself—­balanced on one leg. I bring both arms overhead in fifth position, the space between them an imaginary crown, and then I bring my arm back down, give my hand to the second suitor. Second promenade. I do this four times in total, ending with my high, unsupported arabesque. The music is swelling, the orchestra creating a big inhale. I tease the conductor a little bit by making the last supported pirouette a triple—­he controls the music to match me. I smile mischievously at an audience I can’t see beyond the lights. The music thuds to its dramatic conclusion as I flourish my arms in third position. Oh Tchaikovsky, I think.

At the barre, I drown out the clunky, repetitive accompaniment by playing Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto in my mind. Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich—­those were Paul’s favorites. Demi-­plié and then grand plié, butt low to the ground, knees reaching over the second toes. Tendus, foot caressing the floor and then pointing: front, front, front fifth, front fifth, side, side, side fifth, side fifth, back, back, back fourth, back fourth, temps liés. And then dégagés, slow and fast, the foot caresses and then flies—­front, side, back, side, side, back, side, front. Rond de jambe, the foot sweeping graceful half circles into the floor, and fondus and développés, the legs growing long now, delicious bloom in the hips and the inner thighs. Frappes, the legs loose at the knees, the feet playful. And finally, grand battements, lifting high, throwing the leg front, side, back, side. Company class is both repetitive and vital.

Alison is one of my favorite ballet mistresses at the company. She is perpetually in a good mood, her combinations are thoughtful, her corrections precise and gentle. She is in the middle of the room now, humming to herself and doing a kind of half dancing, sketching. I barely have to listen as she sets the next steps. I have been taking class with Alison since my student days at the School of American Ballet. The New York City Ballet does not hold open auditions; it pulls its dancers from SAB. Every class was a battle raged against imperfection. I remember the desperate thrill of it, the hunger. I stood out because of my Blackness, and I was determined then to obliterate it, to render my Blackness irrelevant with perfection.

Kaz, NYCB’s artistic director, took an interest in me early. He would slip into a class of young dancers, study us with his trademark stare. And he’d stop in front of me, watching me up close, very rarely offering a correction—­only looking. To have Kaz’s eye on you was like an anointment, his very gaze material, an investiture. His fascination with me was unnerving, terrifying. His visits to classes were unpredictable. I never knew when he would be watching me, and so I had to constantly be perfect, beautiful. I was the only Black face in a sea of white and tan; I could not be anything but visible.

The pressure was enormous. I couldn’t have a bad turn day, or a fat day, when, no matter which clothes I wore, which mirror I checked, which angle I viewed myself from, all I saw was my body taking up too much space. When my knee started to ache, I couldn’t sit out for the big jumps at the end of class. I was a brick-­brown kid from Brooklyn. There were people around me—­students and faculty alike—­waiting for proof that I couldn’t be graceful, that I was too heavy, too muscular, that my feet were too big, too flat, that I wasn’t classical. Ballet has always been about the body. The white body, specifically. So they watched my Black body, waited for it to confirm their prejudices, grew ever more anxious as it failed to do so, again and again.

I mark the little flourishes, the movement phases with my hands and feet, and then my body knows what to do. This has always been a skill of mine, remembering. I have been doing this routine—­or variations thereof—­every day for seventeen years. It is as ingrained in me as the movements required for tying my ribbons. I don’t have to think about it. Instead, I return to a favorite daydream of mine: I see the curtains rising, and the violin concerto is inflating, an orchestral bubble, and I can never work out whether it is I who appears first or my brother. Dwelling on Paul is a precious and carefully rationed indulgence. I just want him to see me now.

About the Author

Nicole Cuffy
Nicole Cuffy is the author of Dances, longlisted for the Carol Shields prize for fiction and the Pen/Hemingway award. Cuffy has a MFA from The New School. She is a lecturer at the University of Maryland and American University. Her work can be found in Mason’s Road, The Master’s Review Volume VI (curated by Roxane Gay), Chautauqua, and Blue Mesa Review, and her chapbook, Atlas of the Body, won the Chautauqua Janus Prize and was a finalist for the Black River Chapbook Competition. She is based in D.C. More by Nicole Cuffy
Decorative Carat
Random House Publishing Group