Student Profile: Joanna Marsh

Joanna Marsh (pictured front-right above) is an avid Kansas City Ballet School Studio Class Student as well as the author of Cantique, a novel following novice dancer Colette Larsen as she is thrust into the world of professional ballet.

What do you enjoy about ballet?

There are so many things I enjoy about ballet. I love how it combines art and athleticism—beauty and strength. I love the music itself and the creative energy and camaraderie that builds up in the studio. And I enjoy taking part in a tradition that has survived for so long; ballet has such a fascinating history.

The way I started as a teen was rather unconventional. Ballet wasn’t on my radar until I saw Robert Altman’s movie The Company. It opened my eyes to what ballet really is, and I was completely enthralled by it, though it never occurred to me to ask my parents for classes. Not long after that, I went to a party on a whim, and some friends there invited me to take a summer session with them at Legacy School of the Arts. Thanks to The Company, I was primed to accept the invitation, though I had no idea how important ballet would become to me.

What would you tell someone considering taking adult studio ballet classes?

I would tell them that it’s never too late to learn how to dance! And also to remember that it’s okay for adults to be beginners. Ballet is challenging, and it takes a while to catch on—just be patient with yourself. Keep things light, enjoy the music, and you will be surprised by how much you can progress. And don’t worry about other students watching you; we are all busy focusing on our own dancing!

In your book, Cantique, your main character begins taking ballet classes as an adult. According to your website you took ballet at 16 and then came back to it as an adult. What inspired you to return to ballet? 

I returned because I missed it terribly! My ballet training as a teen was very short–only about a year, which was long enough to fall in love with it. I gave it up for various reasons (none of which were very good) and always regretted that decision.

I continued to think about ballet quite often. After taking a couple of dance courses in college, I promised myself I would find some classes once I graduated. Eventually, I found KCB and knew that I wouldn’t let ballet go this time! That was over seven years ago.

How did you go about researching the book?

I didn’t need to do much research because I had already spent years immersing myself in ballet. I had a lot of experience to draw from. I did interview Taryn (Layne-Mulhern) Ouellette, one of my teachers, after my first draft was written. I wanted to gain a little insight from a teacher’s perspective to evaluate what I had already written into Marianne’s character. It was fun to hear about what drives Taryn’s love of ballet, and she is an excellent teacher for adult beginners.

Are there similarities between yourself and your main character Colette Larsen?

Colette and I definitely have some similarities. Obviously, our shared love of ballet is one. She and I are also both creative introverts who love our cats. Otherwise, we have completely different family lives and careers, and I’d like to think that I’m more confident and less neurotic than Colette can be sometimes! Oh, and I’m a terrible seamstress; you will never find me making my own dancewear.

In your book, you describe the Westmoreland Ballet, and it sounds a lot like Kansas City Ballet including the layout of the building. How much did you base this fictional company on KCB?

I actually tried to avoid basing Westmoreland on the Bolender Center, but I’m sure there are some similarities—the “little theater” studio being an obvious one. In the book, Westmoreland is described as a “sprawling, Prairie School building,” “rather plain,” and “subject to several half-hearted renovations.” This is not at all how I would describe the sleek and beautifully restored Bolender Center! Besides this brief passage, I intentionally left the descriptions and setting vague, so readers seem to picture whichever ballet school they are most familiar with.

As for the company itself—I wanted it to pass for any mid-sized, Midwestern ballet company. None of the characters in the book are based on actual KCB dancers or staff members.

The hardware store is called Tempe’s. We have a certain ballerina named Tempe Ostergren… coincidence?

Ha,ha! I knew someone would ask me about that one day! Honestly, it was not intentional, although her name was likely floating around in my subconscious at the time. (I finished the first draft in 2015, after I was a supernumerary in Giselle, so I had watched her perform several times.) In the book, the store is named after the original owner, Walter Tempe, but it didn’t take me long to realize the KCB connection. I decided to keep the name anyway. We can go ahead and say it’s a nod to Tempe Ostergren—she’s an incredible dancer!

Where did you get your inspiration for the plot of the ballet?

The plot of the ballet came straight out of Song of Solomon and its various interpretations. I basically read through the book and tried to imagine how Colette might structure a ballet from it. Originally, the music was going to be based on Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the plot of the novel was more about Colette searching through archives to discover the origin of the music. (I’m an archivist and mistakenly thought this was a good idea at the time.) Eventually, the novel morphed into a love story and Song of Solomon seemed like a better pairing.

Was there a piece of music you heard in class?

Not specifically. The first scene I wrote is the one where Colette hears a mysterious song in class during rond de jambe and closes her eyes, overcome by the beauty of the music. Her friend Sammy, who is watching her through the mirror, sees this and gently mocks Colette for being overly romantic. This scene just came to me in a flash one day in 2013, and I felt compelled to write it down. So, there was never one piece in class that inspired it. I will say that I’ve had similar moments during rond de jambe before, though. Probably to Chopin’s Waltz no. 7 in C-sharp minor. That one gets me every time!

How long did it take you to write Cantique?

I’d say at least two and a half years. I wrote sporadic scenes as early as 2013 but wrote the bulk of the manuscript in about six months during 2015. It took another year and a half of editing before I published in June 2017.

What was the biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge was releasing Cantique to the public. I’m a perfectionist and could have kept polishing it for another ten years before I’d let anyone else see it. But I needed it to be done. It’s still difficult knowing that it’s out there and people can interpret it however they want. Understandably, readers have a hard time separating me from the story, which can be a bit mortifying at times. I often have to remind people that it’s a work of fiction!

Tell me more about your blog? How did that come about? Where do you find your subjects to interview?

My blog was a way to connect with fellow dancers and readers. Thanks to Instagram, I realized that there is an ever-growing community of adult ballet students all over the world. I found this really fascinating and chose to interview a variety of people whose stories caught my attention. Adult beginners often feel out-of-place or even embarrassed about their interest in ballet; I wanted the blog to celebrate their efforts and to show people that they’re far from alone. Ballet can be for anyone.

Any plans for more books?

I would love to write more books. I promised my readers a sequel but am working on it at a snail’s pace. I work full time and dance 3-4 nights a week, so finding the time is a struggle!

Does your husband enjoy ballet?

He does! He is nowhere near as obsessed as I am, but he has taken class with me twice and enjoys watching performances. He is a musician and is very understanding of my need for time in the studio. If I’m having an off night and dragging my feet about going to class, he’ll tell me, “You’ll feel better if you go.” And he’s always right.

Top Photo by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios

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