The Phoenix Dance
by Dia Calhoun
2005 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
In The Phoenix Dance Dia Calhoun retells the fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” (or “The Shoes that Were Danced to Pieces”, depending on the collection you’re looking at) from the perspective of the royal shoemaker’s apprentice. Phoenix, the apprentice heroine, is passionate about designing and making shoes (almost to the exclusion of anything else much of the time) and she has a lot of talent, but she also has a disease that makes it hard for sometimes. She has periods where she’s in the Kingdom of Brilliance and deliriously happy all the time. Everything is bright and beautiful and inspiration spills out of her, often faster than she can keep up with it, but eventually she reaches a breaking point and topples over into the Kingdom of Darkness where she is miserable, almost to the point of wanting to die sometimes. She can’t do or think about anything in this state. A treatment is eventually found, but not one she likes. She begins to see parallels between what she experiences and what the dancing princesses are going through and uses that to solve the mystery. It’s a very interesting approach and works extremely well.
Although the Bipolar aspect of the book originally surprised me quite a bit, it actually was probably my favorite part of the whole thing. I really felt that it worked wonderfully to explain what is often a fundamentally confusing story. The fact that the author was able to use her own experiences to write the character’s experiences so convincingly and interestingly helped enormously. It really felt like she got the whole picture, not just pieces of it, from Phoenix’s personal struggles to her frustrations with the medications to even the prejudices she faced everyday in society, it was very real. And it all worked really well with the fairy tale, which was very impressive since often this type of thing doesn’t mesh well with fairy tale stories.
One of the things that I really loved about this book was the interesting world it was set in. Calhoun didn’t actually explicitly explain a lot of things, but I gathered that the kingdom is matriarchal which is fascinating simply because of it’s rarity in fantasy literature (or really any literature). When we do see matriarchal worlds they tend not to feel natural and often seem to exist simply to make a point, but this was so subtle I am still not entirely certain of it (despite the fact that the book made it clear the crown is passed down through the female line and Phoenix’s last name was passed down through the women in her family, not the men). Simply the fact that Calhoun was able to create a world where that felt so simple and natural, where I didn’t even think about it until most of the way through, despite numerous clues, was wonderful! What a fabulous thing for girls and for feminist literature in general! What a great thing just for the variety of literature – more worlds that are realistic and dynamic, yet truly different in some way from what we’re used to! I was incredibly impressed.
I loved this book. Dia Calhoun’s writing was fantastic and her story completely captured me. I couldn’t put the book down once I picked it up and I was incredibly sad when it ended, despite the ending, just because I had to leave that wonderful world! I will definitely be reading more of her books in the future! The Phoenix Dance is well worth reading and I highly recommend it!