‘It cost a lot of sweat to learn to dance’: Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz as a peek inside the ballet studio
Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz (1932) does not content itself with offering a glossy reflection of the world of the 1920s hedonistic American. The occupants and attitudes of this world are satirised in a manner which we have come to expect of the modernists, but it is not the criticism of the American expatriate society which makes the novel unexpectedly interesting; it is the peek behind the stage curtain into the world of the ballet.
By the 1920s, when Zelda Fitzgerald was training seriously, ballet had been reinvigorated. It had become an acceptable art-form for the entertainment of the middle-classes (although critic Arnold Haskell would refer to there still being a ‘small lunatic band of hangers-on who make themselves conspicuous both sartorially and vocally’). Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes had brought the form into the purview of modernism and what Fitzgerald gives the reader is a literary modernist perspective on a modernist performative art-form. The reader, before picking up Save Me the Waltz, is likely to have some concept of what a ballet performance entails, but Fitzgerald does not consider the performance for the pleasure of an audience to be the most important aspect of ballet.
Fitzgerald acknowledges the ability of public performance to influence the society in which her protagonist, Alabama, inhabits firstly as a Southern belle and later as the wife of a famous painter. Alabama’s reputation in her hometown is partly based on her debut, dancing Ballet of the Hours for a society ball. She returns to ballet later in the novel for a different purpose: artistic work.
Diaghilev is an idol of Alabama’s. Her motivation and desire is to be competent enough to dance in his company. She observes the attitudes which Diaghilev’s dancers hold: ‘An allegiance to his genius as strong as a cult determined all their opinions.’ Their admiration of Diaghilev and their pride at being a member of his company is reflected in the discipline and seriousness that Alabama senses on her first visit to the ballet studio: ‘Effort and aspiration, excitement, discipline, and an overwhelming seriousness flooded the vast barn of a room.’ Not all of the women in the studio are dancers in Diaghilev’s company, but their dedication to the perfection of their art is no less.
Through this window into the world of the ballet studio, the reader is looking with a woman’s eyes. The studio is a space almost entirely free from the male gaze. Any men in the studio that are mentioned by the narrator are of such little significance that they are largely forgotten from the general impression that the story gives to the reader. The studio is largely a feminine space; obvious denotations of this woman-dominated space are the tights, skirts and flowers which fill the studio. It is also a matriarchal society. Madame, their teacher and mentor, is at the head of the studio, but the way in which the space is described is nuanced. The dancers are not described as being the way that they would be were they performing on stage for an audience. A more decorative aesthetic description would be expected for ballerinas on the stage, an aesthetic which is not apparent in the narrator’s description of the women in their training and rehearsals. These women are broken, bruised and sweaty: ‘There were blue bruises inside above the knee where the muscles were torn.’ Alabama notes to herself ‘It cost a lot of sweat to learn to dance.’ The narrator’s intended message is clear: this is a place of work and these women are not decorative objects.
To the modern reader, such descriptions of women’s bodies are not surprising. The idea that women are capable and willing to take on tasks of physical endurance is not a modern taboo, however, this was not necessarily so in the 1920s when the novel is set. Being decorative is the expectation of Alabama’s social peers. They are aghast at the work that is required to become the decorative dancer they expected. When her friends watch Alabama practice: ‘“It’s abominable! She’ll never be able to get up in a drawing room and do that! What’s the good of it?”’ The contrast between the public performance and the personal practice is not understood by Alabama’s leisured friends. Whereas they wish to be entertained by her dancing, Alabama is focused on achieving success in an art-form. The ballet studio is not a space for outsiders to come to be entertained.
The ignorant attitude of her friends is part of another obstacle to Alabama’s training which must be overcome. In the studio, Alabama’s efforts to become a ballet dancer are undermined by some of her fellow pupils through their assumption that because she is married then there is no point to her dancing (the implication that the women are learning in order to gain something material). Madame challenges Alabama’s motivation for coming to her studio: ‘You have friends and money already.’ There is juxtaposition between the other dancers’ desire to be decorative with their equal determination to be ballet dancers. This attitude, though voiced by some of the women, is not shown to be true in practice as there are married women in the studio in addition to Alabama.
Fitzgerald deliberately avoids any description of the performance of ballet on stage. For her, the events in the studio are more narratively interesting than any attempt to convey a performance. Alabama turns to ballet in an attempt to gain a sense of purpose and a sense of self. Her companions in the studio also gain their sense of self from their work regardless of their ability or affluence. What is important to convey to the reader is that Alabama does not find satisfaction in the performance of her art; rather her satisfaction comes from the discipline and attainment of skill needed in order to achieve her role on the professional stage.
Confirmation of Alabama’s achievements in her art comes in the form of an invitation to dance professionally in Naples. Even now, the narrative avoids any explanation or description of the performance and focuses on the difficulties of rehearsing for a ballet. The brutality of the ballet is much unchanged as ‘Alabama’s feet were bleeding as she fell into bed.’ Unfortunately for Alabama, and after the reader has become invested in her ballet career, the final outcome of her efforts in the ballet is to become hospitalised because of an infected blister.
Whilst narratively ballet does not become the focus of the novel until half way through (and the story continues once Alabama’s career has been ended), the reader’s lasting impression of the text is that Save Me the Waltz is a novel about ballet. Zelda Fitzgerald offers us an insight to the world of the ballet studio and makes astute commentary on what happens behind the scenes of the modernist ballet scene.
Jaime Church is a PhD student at the University of Wolverhampton. Jaime’s research concerns the writings of Zelda Fitzgerald, particularly her novel Save Me the Waltz (1932).