Fierce and Delicate: Essays on Dance and Illness recounts Renée K. Nicholson’s journey to become a professional ballet dancer, as well as the early retirement she was forced to take after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (R.A.) at the age of twenty-one.
Rest assured, you don’t have to understand or enjoy anything about ballet to appreciate the passion and dedication Nicholson has displayed for the art form for nearly her entire life.
I identified with Nicholson’s dream of becoming the best athlete in her field, her years of sacrificing a personal life, and pushing her body to its absolute limit in order to achieve that dream. And sadly, I know all too well what it’s like to have a chronic illness get in the way of accomplishing your athletic goals. Nicholson describes the heartbreak that comes with acknowledging that no matter how hard you’ve worked, how talented you are, or how long you’ve dreamed of achieving your goals, your willpower and determination are no match for an incurable autoimmune disease’s relentless attack on your body.
Nicholson’s essays cover her years of ballet training, competition, and performance, how the art form focuses on perfection (in both one’s ballet technique and physical appearance), her struggles to form true friendships with her fellow competitors, her R.A. diagnosis and decision to stop dancing, how she decided to become a writer, and ultimately, her journey back to dance.
Because the book is a collection of essays as opposed to a more traditional memoir, at times I did find it a bit difficult to keep the timeline of events straight in my mind as I continued reading.
I also felt as if Nicholson still has a bit of unresolved resentment/anger toward her illness and her forced early retirement. While that is completely understandable, it does her memoir a disservice. Nicholson so eloquently expresses her love of and devotion to dance throughout the book, and even recognizes that by writing about dance, she continues to have a meaningful artistic outlet in her life. Unfortunately, when she addresses her R.A. diagnosis and how it’s affected her physical and mental health, the passages feel far curter and emotionally removed.
Again, while I can commiserate with Nicholson saying she doesn’t want to be pitied, that her pride has kept her from asking for or accepting others’ help, and that she’s felt a deep resentment of the fact that her body derailed her dreams, my sincerest wish is that she works through those feelings on a deeper level and finds some peace in her life with a chronic illness. It will undoubtedly help both her creative nonfiction writing as well as her own mental health and wellbeing.
Otherwise, the book is a beautiful tribute to an art form that clearly shaped Renée Nicholson’s life a great deal.