The best books about dancing

9 authors have picked their favorite books about dancing and why they recommend each book.

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Entwined

By Heather Dixon,

Book cover of Entwined

This is my favorite The Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling! Heather Dixon includes all twelve princesses, named after various plants, and gives them distinct enough personalities that not only can you keep them straight, you care about each one. This story follows Azalea, the eldest of the twelve sisters, and the mysterious Keeper, who invites the princesses to dance every night in his silver forest. But the Keeper likes to keep things, and can Azalea bear to pay the cost? Eerie and gorgeous, romantic and masterful!


Who am I?

I have been a passionate devourer of fairytale retellings ever since I happened upon Robin McKinley’s Beauty at the library when I was eleven years old. Fairytales have such a timelessness to them that allow them to be retold over and over, reinterpreted, and reimagined in seemingly countless ways, and I’m honored to have now written a few of my own. Fairytales have shaped my own writing from the beginning.


I wrote...

Echo North

By Joanna Ruth Meyer,

Book cover of Echo North

What is my book about?

Echo is an outcast in her village because of the scars on her face. Her only solace is her books and the warmth of her father’s love. So when her father goes missing and she finds him half-frozen at the feet of a mysterious white wolf, she’ll do anything to save him—even promise to live with the wolf for one year.

The wolf’s house is magical and ever-changing. If its many wondrous and perilous rooms aren’t routinely cared for, they unravel and are lost forever. The wolf teaches Echo how to tend the house, and when she discovers an enchanted library filled with book mirrors—and the dashing reader Hal inside of them—she determines to help however she can. But time is running out, and if Echo doesn’t unravel the mystery of the wolf’s enchantment before the year is up, she’ll lose the wolf—and Hal—forever. A retelling of “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”, set in a Russian-inspired world.

National Rhythms, African Roots

By John Charles Chasteen,

Book cover of National Rhythms, African Roots: The Deep History of Latin American Popular Dance

In this fascinating study, Chasteen examines the historical experiences that molded Latin American popular dance from an Atlantic perspective. It delves into the “deep” history of Latin American culture and analyzes the development of dancing culture in its socio-historical context. This is not only a well-researched, but also a well written and oftentimes funny book that is broadly accessible. It is a must-read for any new scholar interested in the field of Black performance culture. Although the focus is on Latin America, Chasteen’s study reveals connections that are also of great importance to understanding the historical development of Black dance culture in North America.


Who am I?

I am a philologist with a passion for Atlantic cultural history. What started with a research project on the African-American Pinkster tradition and the African community in seventeenth-century Dutch Manhattan led me to New Orleans’ Congo Square and has meanwhile expanded to the African Atlantic islands, the Caribbean, and Latin America. With fluency in several foreign languages, I have tried to demonstrate in my publications that we can achieve a better understanding of Black cultural and religious identity formation in the Americas by adopting a multilingual and Atlantic perspective. 


I wrote...

From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square: Kongo Dances and the Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians

By Jeroen Dewulf,

Book cover of From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square: Kongo Dances and the Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians

What is my book about?

From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square presents a new interpretation of the Mardi Gras Indians, one of New Orleans’ most enigmatic cultural traditions. By interpreting this performance in an Atlantic context and using historical sources in multiple languages, I traced the “Black Indians” back to the ancient Kingdom of Kongo in Africa and its war dance known as “sangamento.” The book shows that talented warriors in the Kongo kingdom were by definition also good dancers, masters of a technique of dodging, spinning, and leaping that was crucial in local warfare. Furthermore, it demonstrates how this performance tradition accompanied enslaved Kongolese communities to the African island of São Tomé and, subsequently, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Louisiana.

The Ecstasy of Being

By Joseph Campbell,

Book cover of The Ecstasy of Being: Mythology and Dance

I am sure many of you already know this visionary philosopher from his ground-breaking The Hero With a Thousand Faces. You may not be aware that Campbell was married to Jean Erdman, one of Martha Graham’s principal dancers in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Campbell’s initiations to modern dance came at Sarah Lawrence College when witnessing Erdman as Graham’s student; and then at Bennington, where Erdman performed with Graham’s company. His own learned background in the archetypal ethos of C.G. Jung made Campbell a prime candidate for Graham’s deeply-digging, Nietzschean/ecstatic archaic/abstract movement vocabulary. The choreographer and the professor spoke the same kinaesthetic language, Erdman remembered. There were many late nights when “Martha would call Joe on the phone” with some arcane question about her mythographic pieces in progress – Night Journey and Errand into the Maze. Many of Campbell’s essays in this book were first published in Dance Observer…


Who am I?

The most important words of advice my incisive editor at Knopf, Victoria Wilson, gave me while I was laboring upon my biography of Martha Graham – coming out in October, you can pre-order it now – was to say that “she was not a goddess, and you don’t want to worship her.” Yes, I had the nerve to take on this formidable and forbidding figure as a result of bearing witness to her anti-War masterwork, Chronicle, on a winter evening fourteen years ago. Yes, I believed that modern dance was the missing link in my long exploration of American modernism. And yes, I believe that I have proven my point, painting Martha Graham’s portrait as a person – rather than an icon.


I wrote...

Martha Graham: When Dance Became Modern

By Neil Baldwin,

Book cover of Martha Graham: When Dance Became Modern

What is my book about?

After a lifetime of writing about primal forces of American modernism in culture and industry I had an epiphany ten years ago to seize upon this legendary dancer and choreographer who propelled the art form into the modern age. Time magazine called Martha Graham “the Dancer of the Century.” Her technique became the first alternative to the idiom of classical ballet. Her pioneering movements—powerful, dynamic, jagged, edgy, forthright—combined with her distinctive system of training, were the epitome of American modernism, performance as art. 

At the heart of Graham’s work: movement that could express inner feelings. And at the heart of my long obsession with her – seeing through the looking glass into the fiery orbit of an irrepressible, indefatigable meteor whose imagery still lights up the stage three decades after her death. 

Erotic Triangles

By Henry Spiller,

Book cover of Erotic Triangles: Sundanese Dance and Masculinity in West Java

Erotic Triangles returns to a part of the world I know well, though the topic is alien to my own natural resource emphasis. Yet I found it fascinating for its symbolic analyses of West Java’s musical and art worlds – intertwined intimately with the relations between men and women and among men. Its emphasis on triangles was the inspiration for me to structure my own analyses as a harp (another ‘triangle’), within which the strings signify traits that men value in a given culture. Spiller’s analysis inspired my own analogy between the creation of harp music and the clusters of values that influence men’s identities, their personal and cultural ‘songs.’


Who am I?

I began studying women’s lives in college (1960s), but recently realized that I (like others) passed myself off as a gender specialist, but had been ignoring men’s roles, beliefs, and behaviour in gender dynamics. I was put off by the studies that too consistently showed men as always violent and controlling. Many studies emphasized men at war, men abusing women, and gay men with HIV/AIDS; there seemed no recognition of positive masculine traits. Recognizing also that men had different ideals about their own masculinity in different places, I examined men’s lives among international elites and in communities in the US, Sumatra, and Indonesia, where I’d done ethnographic research. 


I wrote...

Masculinities in Forests: Representations of Diversity

By Carol J. Pierce Colfer,

Book cover of Masculinities in Forests: Representations of Diversity

What is my book about?

This book captures elements of my half-century studying gender from an ethnographic perspective. I have re-analyzed my own gender research, focusing in this book on the varying masculinities I have observed. Specifically, the book looks at men’s lives in the Olympic Peninsula logging community of Bushler Bay in the 1970s (and again in 2017); the multi-ethnic (Javanese, Sundanese, and Minangkabau) transmigration communities of Sitiung in West Sumatra in the 1980s; the Kenyah Dayak communities of Long Segar and Long Anai in East Kalimantan between 1979 and the early 2000s (and again in 2019); and the world of international forestry research between 1995 and 2010. The book describes the variations in gender relations and in habitat from place to place and from time to time.

Max

By Rachel Isadora,

Book cover of Max

This is a perfectly charming story about a boy who is way into ballet and baseball, written in the 1970s, but which still holds up today. And no one ever makes fun of him. Max is not necessarily Queer, but I consider it in the canon of kid’s books that address gender identity.


Who am I?

I think Mother Goose got it all wrong. I have been creating books and coloring books for LGBTQ families for over two decades. I believe we deserve stories about LGBTQ children that are jubilant and adventurous; that are about love, mystery, time travel, and all the things everyone else treasures in their favorite books without being lesson books about bullying or being “different.” I have closed many children's books as soon as I get to the part where they are beaten up and made fun of for being gender non-conforming. I am also a visual artist and I love well-written books that are beautiful to look at.


I wrote...

A More Graceful Shaboom

By Jacinta Bunnell, Crystal Vielula (illustrator),

Book cover of A More Graceful Shaboom

What is my book about?

A More Graceful Shaboom is a children’s book about a nonbinary protagonist named Harmon Jitney who finds joy and purpose in a magical satchel, leading to an extraordinary, previously undiscovered universe. This book features LGBTQ characters seamlessly woven into a delightful, imagination-sparking story, without overtly being a lesson book about gender identity.

Follow Harmon as they unlock the key to their own inner happiness and sense of community. You may even meet a Muffin Monster along the way! It’s a dash of Narnia, The Little Prince, and the town of Woodstock all rolled into one, plus there are disco balls. I always prefer if people buy books directly from my website. This is the best way to most straightforwardly support me as an author.

Giraffes Can't Dance

By Giles Andreae, Guy Parker-Rees (illustrator),

Book cover of Giraffes Can't Dance

"Gerald was a tall giraffe
Whose neck was long and slim
But his knees were awfully bandy
And his legs were rather thin."

It is Gerald’s story but in fact, my favourite spread is the one which shows (brilliant artwork here) the other animal dancers

"The wart hogs started waltzing
And the rhinos rock ‘n’ rolled
The lions danced a tango
Which was elegant and bolded
The chimps all did a cha-cha
With a very Latin feel
And eight baboons then teamed up for a splendid Scottish reel."

And of course in the end Gerald astonishes them all having had some advice on rhythm from a friendly cricket.

I recommend this book not only for its rhythm and rhyme but for its implication that if you try hard you can do more than you think. Also for its lovely flowing illustrations.


Who am I?

I am passionately keen on poetry of many types because, whether rhyming or not, most poetry employs rhythm which is something that has a subconscious appeal to human senses. For children, rhyme provides an easy introduction to poetry and I enjoy using it because children themselves love it. Mums tell me that they are asked to read the same book time and time again – and not to try to skip any spreads! At the age of three, before she could read, my son’s goddaughter knew the whole of You Can’t Take an Elephant on the Bus by heart. The rhymes children hear when very young remain with them, sometimes forever. 


I wrote...

You Can't Let an Elephant Drive a Racing Car

By Patricia Cleveland-Peck, David Tazzyman (illustrator),

Book cover of You Can't Let an Elephant Drive a Racing Car

What is my book about?

This is the fifth book and latest in the series which began with You Can’t Take an Elephant on the Bus. These are rhyming books about a gang of silly animals who want to be helpful, do exciting things and excel at things like sports but always get things wrong and end up creating crazy, chaotic situations. This is something most children and quite a number of adults feel. Usually the animals end up having fun in spite of their failings – after all, they meant well.

The whacky illustrations by David Tazzyman aptly portray this …in a way that never fails to make children laugh and adults smile.

The Electric Slide and Kai

By Kelly J. Baptist, Darnell Johnson (illustrator),

Book cover of The Electric Slide and Kai

I don’t know if this book necessarily takes place in summer, but it’s centered around one of my favorite ‘African-American Joy Rituals’ - the Electric Slide! Kai agonizes over his failure to get a dance nickname from his very cool grandfather because of his two left feet. When his aunt gets married, he’s determined to conquer the Electric Slide at her reception.

Who doesn’t love a good, all-inclusive line dance? I still remember learning the Electric Slide when I was 6– to this day if I’m at a party and it’s playing, you’ll know where to find me (the dance floor!). Fun book.


Who am I?

I write to spread joy and truth. As a proud Black mother living in a country with school districts that see Black stories as threats worth banning, amplifying these stories is crucial to the fight to help humanize us and retain the privilege of celebration and joy. When I wrote The Juneteenth Story, it was rooted in a conscious effort to balance my own joyous summertime memories of celebrating the holiday with the hard truths that established and evolved this holiday. This list includes a small sample of books about some of the many ways Black folks celebrate - enjoy.


I wrote...

The Juneteenth Story: Celebrating the End of Slavery in the United States

By Alliah L. Agostini,

Book cover of The Juneteenth Story: Celebrating the End of Slavery in the United States

What is my book about?

On June 19, 1865—more than two years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation— enslaved Texans finally learned they were free. That day became a day of remembrance and celebration that changed and grew from year to year. With colorful illustrations and a timeline, The Juneteenth Story is an introductory history of Juneteenth for kids that details the evolution of the holiday commemorating the date the enslaved people of Texas first learned of their freedom.

Learn about the events that led to emancipation and why it took so long for enslaved people in Texas to hear the news. Hear about the first Juneteenth celebrations, and how Juneteenth continued to grow, develop, and endure through the centuries to become an official holiday in the United States in 2021.

Keeping Together in Time

By William H. McNeill,

Book cover of Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History

I selected this book because it finally offered me some answers to questions I’d asked myself all my life: Why am I so driven to dance? Why does dancing make me feel so euphoric? McNeill found himself asking this last question when forced to go through endless military close-order drill (a sort of dance!) as a young draftee. Whence these surprisingly positive effects of “keeping together in time”? Over the course of his later life as a historian, he tracked down a fascinating array of anecdotal and cognitive answers.  The relation of this phenomenon to unique details of how the human brain is put together was then further addressed by Oliver Sacks toward the end of his book Musicophilia, where I first learned of McNeill.


Who am I?

I’m an information junkie who loves to dance. I fell in love with folk dancing at age 6, European archaeology at 11, linguistics and cognition at 21—and could never drop any of them. My scientist-father always said, “Follow the problem, not the discipline,” and I began to see how these fields could help answer each other’s questions. Words can survive for millennia—with information about what archaeologists don’t find, like oh-so-perishable cloth. Determining how to reconstruct prehistoric textiles (Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years) then led me to trace the origins of various European folk costumes, and finally even to reconstruct something about the origins of the dances themselves.


I wrote...

The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance

By Elizabeth Wayland Barber,

Book cover of The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance

What is my book about?

European communal dance developed around farming beliefs about fertility and health, when farming spread to Europe 8,000 years ago. Food crops depended on soil and rain: the ancestors, buried below, could push up the sprouts, but who managed rain? Perhaps the spirits of girls who died before bearing children (many by drowning) and hadn’t used their natural allotment of fertility. Dance rituals appeased spirit-maidens when angry, and told them when it was time to leave their watery homes and shed fertility by dancing across the fields. My book traces traditional seasonal rituals, folklore of the dancing spirit-maidens, wedding customs around those most potent maidens, Brides, plus the matching archaeological evidence, concluding with insights from cognitive science on “Why do we humans just love to dance?”

The Day We Danced in Underpants

By Sarah Wilson, Catherine Stock (illustrator),

Book cover of The Day We Danced in Underpants

Embarrassment is a big emotion that can grab a child with hands of steel. In this beautifully rhyming book, an invitation to picnic with the King calls for new clothes. Told through the eyes of a child the very festive occasion takes a turn when Papa’s pants rip. Papa turned red but one can imagine the embarrassment this child had for her family. Fortunately, the King not only saves the day but makes it better. I think this kind of action is a good example of easing an awkward situation.


Who am I?

Often, people don’t understand the emotions of a child. The care and keeping of children have been my life focus as a mother of five, 4-H leader, Kindergarten aide, religious education teacher, and owner of Whalen’s Country Childcare. I hold dear the awe and wonder seen in the eyes of a child and hope to forever be inspired by the sight. Since my new book, Little Red Rolls Away was released, I have presented at schools, libraries, appeared in newspapers, magazines, and been featured on CBS Good Day Sacramento. Endorsements include filmmaker Joey Travolta, Founder and Creative Director, Inclusion Films, a company that aims to teach the art of filmmaking to people with developmental disabilities.


I wrote...

Little Red Rolls Away

By Linda Whalen, Jennifer E. Morris (illustrator),

Book cover of Little Red Rolls Away

What is my book about?

When Little Red Barn wakes one morning, he finds his animal friends have gone. He's empty and alone. And then big noisy machines lift him up and put him on a truck. As Little Red is transported across the countryside, down a major river, and through city streets, he feels anxious and a little afraid. Where is he going? Who will be there when he reaches his destination? When Little Red does finally reach his new home in a surprising location, he finds things are even better than before.

While entertaining children, the story of the little barn's relocation and adjustment to a new place will reassure and comfort young readers facing changes in their own lives.

Princess of the Midnight Ball

By Jessica Day George,

Book cover of Princess of the Midnight Ball

Princess of the Midnight Ball is the very first retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses that I’d ever read, and it heavily influenced my own writing. George’s descriptions of the Underworld fascinated me, and I found it both hilarious and wonderful that the male protagonist knew how to knit. His skills came in handy later on in the story!


Who am I?

I’ve been in love with fairytales since childhood when I picked up a collection of fairytales by Hans Christian Anderson. These stories shaped my imagination, so much so that I longed for distant mysterious lands full of magic, wonder, and mystical creatures. Though in a way, I guess I did live a bit of a fairytale, having grown up surrounded by thick woods and open fields, as one of twelve siblings. Now as an adult, I still wish I could escape to distant fantastical lands, but I’ll just have to stick with the ones I find between the pages of books and the ones in my own head! 


I wrote...

Curse of the Midnight King

By Yakira Goldsberry,

Book cover of Curse of the Midnight King

What is my book about?

Can she break the curse in time to save her sisters? She may conquer more than the Midnight King; she may learn to conquer herself.

In this retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses and Cinderella, Faye must sacrifice herself to save her sisters, or risk them being trapped in the Underworld forever, suffering from the curse she helped create. After being separated for three years from her sisters except when she dances with Pathos, the Midnight King, at midnight on a full moon, Faye finally sees a chance to rescue them all. But things are not as easy as they appear. Pathos, the midnight king, is determined to keep her in the Underworld with him.

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