Sally Bailey has danced with some of the biggest names in professional ballet. Think Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. She became a professional ballerina with the San Francisco Ballet at the age of 19, and spent the next 16 years on a whirlwind of stages: from New York to Ecuador, Istanbul to Cairo, Egypt to El Salvador. And in 2003, she captured some of those fascinating memories in a memoir: “Striving for Beauty: A Memoir of the Christensen Brothers’ San Francisco Ballet.”
I was fortunate enough to meet Sally Bailey at a booksigning, and was immediately a fan. She’s bursting with life, high energy, and enthusiasm. And her book shares some astonishing stories from her high-octane career with the San Francisco Ballet. (Don’t miss the one about leech soup in Rangoon!)
Me, of course, I was full of questions. Sally kindly agreed to share her answers with us in this blog! So read on — and hope you enjoy this virtual “meeting” with Sally, too!
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Q: What was it like, growing up to be a dancer?
A: Dancers often have an unusual time of it. They start younger than in most professions. They grow up in a rarified atmosphere, mostly seeing only each other; and they become more and more removed from ordinary life. But when they manage to succeed, which not all dancers do, this leaves them open to a rare experience: the feeling of complete power and control over a situation, as in a performance when everything just happens to click. I had such an experience once. I still remember it. It occurred while I was dancing Tchaikovsky’s grand pas de deux from the Nutcracker. This pas de deux is indeed grand! When the orchestra is playing full out and you’re dancing full out, feeling every muscle in your body doing exactly as you wish, you and your partner are responding to each other, and the audience is responding to the two of you — it is a heady experience. There aren’t too many experiences like it.
Q: What made you decide to write a book about your years in ballet?
A: I decided to write this book because, after all my years in ballet, I had something to say. It’s not only a memoir of my life, it’s also a chronicle of the Christensen Brothers’ San Francisco Ballet.
Q: Your book is an amazing 370 pages, and covers the time from when you were nine until you were 35. This must have been a momentous undertaking. What got you started writing, and how did you go about the process?
A: It was a big undertaking. From start to finish, the book took me 10 years. My son was in high school during much of this time. I used to get up every morning about an hour before breakfast and write. The original version of my book had over 700 pages — much too long! So after I finished writing, I had a lot of cutting to do.
Q: So many memoir writers quit when their project is half-done — sometimes even after just a few pages. In fact it sounds like your director’s wife hit just that kind of snag. What helped pull you through to the end?
A: I had a lot of help along the way. My brother-in-law had been Chair of the English Department at Annapolis; he had friends who also helped. My husband was a real stickler for the English language, and I had friends who were college English teachers. They all read it, and gave me comments. And for me, the discipline of ballet came in real handy!
As I was looking for a publisher, an old friend who was working as an editor offered to read it and came up with many good suggestions. I rewrote it again. And finally, my manuscript sparked enough interest that a publisher read the whole thing. Though she couldn’t afford to take the project on, she encouraged me to go ahead and publish it with Xlibris. And so did my husband and son, who for ten years put up with late dinners. They said I’d better do something with it.
Q: What did you do to stay organized?
A: I began with a timeline, and I knew what I wanted to say. I had kept journals while on all our tours, which helped immeasurably with dates and details, though I hadn’t kept many notes when we were home.
Q: Your career in ballet was really phenomenal. And yet, at the age of 35, you knew it was time to change your life and go on to other things. Was that part of your motivation for writing the book? To show others that it’s okay to let go of a career and move on?
A: No, my motivation for writing the book was entirely personal. As for the decision to leave dancing, I wanted to quit while I was ahead! Staying in as ballet mistress — a role something like a tutor to the other dancers — felt to me like cleaning up other people’s messes. It wasn’t appealing to me. Many dancers aren’t interested in a world beyond dance, but I knew there was a whole wide world out there and I was excited to explore it.
Q: Do you have any encouragement or advice for other memoir writers?
A: I think everyone has to just feel their way through the process, and just keep plugging.
Q: You’ve actually written two books: “Striving for Beauty” and also “After the Applause Stops: Who Are You When You No Longer Do What You’ve Been Doing for Years?” Where can readers find your books?
A: My books can be ordered online through Amazon and Borders, or from the publisher, Xlibris.
P.S. Like a free copy of Sally’s book? I’m so pleased to share her story I’m doing a Giveaway! Just drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know why you’re eager to read her book! Best answer (in my humble opinion) before November 22, 2019 wins the book. If you win, I’ll email you for your mailing address.
Hope her story inspires *you* to keep writing!