Jock Soto’s “Every step you take” Review

by Henrik on December 5, 2011

Jock Soto is a remarkable man, with a remarkable story. He was an acclaimed ballet dancer with the New York City Ballet, one of the worlds most famous companies. But as I turn the pages in his memoir Every step you take (written with Leslie Marshall), it is not the dancer Jock Soto he presents to me – it is the person. His background is indeed an interesting one, and the book is personal and involving.

The cover of the book written by Jock Soto with Leslie Marshall "Every Step You Take"

The book starts out where Soto’s dancing career ended – with his retirement. An interesting tweak for a memoir, often written more chronologically. Through the chapters of the book, Soto takes us on a ride through his childhood, the situations that made him who he is, his training and the life as a dancer with the NY city ballet. He has a personal, honest tone through the entire book, you really get the feeling he is sitting in front of you, telling his story.

And what a story. The life in the ballet company of the famous Balanchine, aside stars like Peter Martins and Jerome Robbins, mingling with the celebrity elite of the time – his tales from in- and outside the theatre are most enjoyable. What a time it was – at one point in the book Soto tells about how the dancers would finish the barre, then have a cigarette in the studio before continuing on to the center exercises. This would, as he also says in the book, never, ever happen today. Spiced with family clashes and turbulent love affairs, every step you take is a story worth reading.

Unlike fellow writer Catherine Tully from 4Dancers.org, I wasn’t too thrilled with the included recipes in the book. I like the idea, to use food to back up a story or a feeling described in the book. But I found myself jumping the recipes parts of the book, as they simply break the flow. Maybe a compilation with the details on how to cook the meals in the end of the book would have done better?!

My biggest problem with Soto’s book is one that frankly shouldn’t exist. But, unfortunately, it does; Soto is a personification of all the stereotypes connected to male dancers. Exotic, a bit artsy, homosexual, slightly extravagant, fond of cooking and well schooled in fine art – it is almost like the prejudice 101 for male dancers. And however much I enjoyed getting to know his story, I can’t help myself but thinking that his book, read by someone outside the ballet world, will only help increase the prejudices male dancers meet every day.

Of course, Soto is not responsible for these prejudices, and it’s not like I mean he should have changed the book because of them. The memoir is great at letting you get under the skin of this remarkable man. But as an advocate for male dancers, I would perhaps chosen another story.

That said, the book is a well written, personal tale of a man with a tale quite different from most of us, and a great read. Maybe a christmas present for a ballet fan? Just give them a link to Tights and Tiaras as well, and the prejudice issue should be handled.

.

Learn more about Jock Soto’s book or purchase a copy.

Disclaimer: This is a product review. I do not receive any payment for such reviews, and have no obligations to write anything other than my opinion. I do receive a copy of the book. If you are curious about the terms of product reviews at Tights and Tiaras, please read our terms here

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Seven of Nine Davids December 5, 2011 at 4:46 pm

I saw this book at Barnes and Noble and have been wanting to read it.

I did not know that he was gay, but now I do. I will return to the gaining of this knowledge in a minute. But first, I found it fascinating that he is Navajo Indian. When I think about ballet, I tend to only think in terms of white people (Caucasians is our check box on official forms) or Asians from Japan and China. While there are black men in ballet, I almost never see a black woman in a ballet company, even though I know that black women want to be in ballet and ballet companies. To read about a Native American being in the NYCB is pretty cool.

Back to gay and ballet. I am not gay or bisexual at all and I just began taking ballet classes 4 years ago. If anyone needs to verify this, I can provide a list of references of the women I have complimented, dated or tried to date. I can also provide a list of references of non-ballet gay men who thought that I would be easy pickins’ once they found out that I liked ballet, only to find out that their gaydar was fooled in my particular case. I can admit when a man is way better looking than me or other men in face and body, but I have no interest in man parts.

Yesterday, after I attended The Nutcracker, I had to defend male ballet dancers to a female relative. I told her that it was great to finally see a lot of men in a ballet and her reaction was, “But they are all gay.” So, I informed her about the trend of male ballet dancers proposing marriage to WOMEN ballerinas on stage after a performance. I had to remind her once again that Natalie Portman and male ballet dancer Benjamin Millepied, had hetero sex and are engaged to be married.

Overall, I do not consider any profession to be gay vs. non-gay unless it is a profession that says “Only gay men allowed” A gay bar would be my only example of this. I don’t remember reading any signs on ballet company doors that say “Only gay men allowed.”

I have seen more than my share of high profile books in America written by manly politicians wives who nearly had a breakdown when the news story broke out that their husband and father of their children was having affairs with many men (gay). These gay men fooled MILLIONS with their perfect portrayal of what everyone expects of a heterosexual man.

Currently, in America, there was just a high profile indictment of a university football coach for sex crime against boys (gay). I have seen investigative reports about tribes in Afghanistan where having boys for sex and erotic dancing (gay) is common practice. Of course, there are the Catholic priest scandels (gay). Even when I am in the gym, where men are taking about football, basketball and baseball (Americas Big 3), there seems to be an awful lot of men looking at each other.

Gay is all around us in every profession. It often hides behind ‘manly’ professions and discussions about racing cars, motorcycles, sports, politics and construction work. My point in all of this is that if a person reads this book by Jack Soto and gets the idea that all men in ballet are gay, I invite that person to step over to all of the other books about gay men in politics, professional sports, the priesthood, the Afghanistan tribes, etc., etc., etc.

Reply

Hans Nelson December 6, 2011 at 3:27 am

I must take issue with the previous commenter’s conflation of paedophilia and child molestation with homosexuality. This is a bizarre, inaccurate, offensive, and harmful stereotype. Child molestation and rape are NOT “gay”. They are paedophilia, and the vast majority of such crimes are actually committed by straight men, even when the child is male.

Second, Henrik, Jock Soto is who he is, and if stupid people spout bigoted stereotypes, that is their own problem to correct, not his. Soto contributed a great deal to his art form for many years, and he should be admired and thanked for that, not told that his identity is some sort of problem. The stereotype is what needs to change, not Soto.

Reply

Henrik December 6, 2011 at 10:39 am

Dear Hans,

First of all, let me just affirm that child molestation is a very serious issue, and has nothing to do with homosexuality.

As for Soto, obviously, he should not change who he is just because his personality fits a superstition. What I wanted to write is that I think it’s a shame that these superstitions exist (As in, why I wrote a problem that frankly shouldn’t exist) at all. I liked the book and Sotos stories, and I have no problem with gay people at all. The only thinkg I pointed out is that if I were to choose a book or tale to advocate male dancers to someone that has no connection to or knowledge of us, I would perhaps choose another book to avoid the stereotypes. That said, Soto is a well respected dancer and teacher, and I do not mean to “tell him” that he ought to change.

Reply

Seven of Nine Davids December 11, 2011 at 4:10 am

Hi Hans. After I made my comment, I did realize and regret that I only listed negative and mostly criminal cases where the world found out that a person was gay. I do personally know a few gay men and as far as I know, they are a law abiding and good citizens.

Reply

Natalia December 6, 2011 at 8:45 pm

Hi Henrik, just wanted to say how much I love your blog. I’ve been following for a while, but haven’t commented due to a faulty internet. But I’m posting now!

I’ve read some interesting autobiographies/biographies by male dancers. One of those was Vaslav’s Nijinsky’s diary. Probably not to everyones taste, as it is slightly confusing (it’s written when he was in Switzerland, when his Schizophrenia was probably at it’s worst), but it’s also very sad. There’s not much description of actual ballet though, except for his own chorerographed pieces that weren’t received well (at the time). My favourite autobiograhy was Gelsey Kirkland’s Danicing on My Grave. You never realise how much a book can change your opinion on people (mainly Baryshnikov), although there’s sure to be an element of bias, and as we only get one side of the story. Her book contains more technical ballet terms (and her relationships, most of which were with ballet dancers). I was wondering if you’ve read any interesting books regarding ballet, besides Soto’s?

In response to the gay aspect of ballet… I find it annoying. I am in no way homophobic, so don’t get me wrong, but I find it degrading when people automatically assume stereotypes. I’ve been engaged to a ballet dancer for a while now, and sometimes he gets abuse when he reveals his occupation; mostly from men. From the women he generally gets asked way too many times if he’s sure about his sexuality. My dad especially was very demeaning. I’d love for that stereotype to be erased, or in the very least I’d like gay people to be accepted and not questioned. Why should it matter so much if someone is gay?

Anyway, why is it considered gay? There is no link between occupation and sexual orientation; I have a gay friend for instance who’s a Doctor. It’s sad… after all, what’s gay about strong men dancing and lifting (or just working with) beautiful ballerinas? I actually found a website on ‘Western stereotypes of the male ballet dancer’, if you’re interested. Apparently approx. 50% of american ballet dancers are gay or bisexual.
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_stereotype_of_the_male_ballet_dancer)

Sorry for the long post… and keep posting! I love these updates.

Reply

Henrik December 7, 2011 at 11:45 am

Hi Natalia, and thank you for your comment – I love long comments, so don’t apologize :)

I also read Gelsey Kirklands book many years ago, I remember it had quite some punches in it – I think I need to read it again! Otherwise, I loved Colum McCann’s “The Dancer”, a fiction book based on Nureyevs life – it’s worth a read!

I totally agree with your opinion about gay prejudices towards male dancers – I can’t find myself to see the connection. I have gay friends that do all sort of work, what is the problem? I don’t care about someones sexuality, I care about the person – but I don’t like others making assumptions about my sexuality based on my line of work. Would you have thought I was gay if I told you I’m a carpenter? Probably not…
I find it hard to believe that half of the male dancers in America is gay, just because it would be severely higher than what I see here in Europe. Sure, there are gay dancers. Just as there are gays footballers and nurses. I don’t know if the percentage in ballet is higher than average, that might be, but it’s nowhere near half.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts – I appreciate it!
H

Reply

Hans Nelson December 7, 2011 at 8:57 pm

Based on my experience, I would say both perceptions are accurate: that there is a higher percentage of gay men in ballet in the US (and the UK), and also that more straight men are involved in ballet in continental Europe and Russia. I think it is mainly that in the US and UK, the culture is less open to the idea of men being involved in the arts. Straight men feel the pressure to conform to cultural stereotypes, so they play sports instead. Gay men, since they are already basically rejected by society, are given more freedom to become artists, especially since that also fits a stereotype. As a result, the arts world has become a safe place for them. When I went to school in continental Europe, it definitely seemed to me that society there was much less prejudiced than in the US/UK. Obviously, this is a superficial explanation of a lot of complicated cultural factors, but you get the general idea. I would certainly love to move back to Europe!

I will also say (although I probably shouldn’t) that my sympathy for white straight men in ballet is limited. I really don’t care that they might have to give up one iota of cultural privilege for a few moments of their lives. No, people ought not to make assumptions about one’s sexual orientation based on stereotypes, but the most helpful attitude for straight men to take is a casual, “So what if I were? It’s none of your business either way.”

Reply

Fayet December 10, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Thanks for the long review! I hadn’t heard about the book before, but now I’ll probably get it for myself as a christmas gift – if it’s availiable in my country till then (somehow I can’t seem to get my hands on it right now. Weird.). I love reading ballet books, and usually find most of them very inspiring. Somehow I can’t really wrap my head around the idea that I will find recipes inside this book, but then it might just be stereotypes – somehow I don’t have the dancer = cook connection in my head. Which, of course, is absolutely wrong. Maybe Mr. Soto can teach me better here..

Reply

John January 4, 2012 at 12:30 am

Henrik,
Thanks for the review as well as the mention of “The Dancer.” I shall look into both.
During the last couple of months I have read, in the following order, I was a Dancer by Jacques D’Amboise (2011), Dancing on my Grave by Gelsey Kirkland (1986), Holding on to the Air by Suzanne Farrell (1990, 2002), and Leap Year by Chris D’Amboise (1982). Each was fascinating and worth the time. Chris’s book Leap Year was written when he was 18 and chronicles 12 months of his life, one month at a time starting in April when he became a member of the New York City Ballet. The book is no longer in print, and the used copy I purchased (from Amazon) was from a high school library. I am guessing it had been in a section for careers for young men, and if so I am sorry it no longer is in that high school library, but perhaps I can loan it to some young man in the future and steer him to dance. Although written by an 18 year old (it was published when he was 22 so I assume he spent some time between 18 and 22 working on it), it has some wonderful insights into both the ballet world in particular and life in general. The fact that he wrote this book 30 years before his father, Jacques, published “I was a Dancer” is just one of those interesting facts of life. Speaking of which, one of the more fascinating lines in the book is near the end when he finally musters the courage to ask Balanchine a question that has been troubling him for some time. He wants to talk to Mr B about…drum roll, please…remember, this is a young man at the start of his professional career as a dancer…women! Unfortunately we have no record of that conversation, if it did indeed take place. I would love to know what George Balanchine would have told an 18 year old male dancer about women.
Jacques’ book was written when he was 77 and is a gentle reflection of his life as a dancer, which was always with New York City Ballet. He partnered 4 of Balanchine’s 5 wives as well as the woman Balanchine wanted to be #6, Suzanne Farrell. I found it really wonderful to get this much information from the male dancer’s perspective. My favorite part of the book is several pages which describe his realization of what he has to do to become a real dancer, which includes strength, stamina, and control. I also appreciated his take on Balanchine, Gelsey Kirland, and Suzanne Farrell.
Gelsey’s book, Dancing on my Grave, was very moving for me. I could hardly put it down, dark as it was. She suffered from many of the same problems some of us have, but to an excruciating degree. One of the highlights for me was to read her description of rehearsing and performing in the version of the Nutcracker that Baryshnikov choreographed for himself and her and then watching the dvd of that performance (thanks to Amazon.com). Watching Kirkland and Baryshnikov dance together is amazing. She is such a perfect match for him. I also agreed with her criticism of the choreography. In fact, I found myself agreeing with her on lots of things.
Gelsey’s extremely negative view of Balanchine can be understood on a very simple level as one of aesthetics: he liked modern art (Chagall did some sets for some of his dances) and modern music (Stravinsky was probably his favorite contemporary composer), and Gelsey didn’t. She used ear plugs when dancing to Stravinsky. Of course there is much more to it than that. For one, Balanchine believed ballet was all about the music. The dance was merely an extension of the music, and Gelsey felt it was all about the dance, which the music supported.
Farell’s book seems to have been written in response to Gelsey’s book as a defense of Balanchine and was published 4 years later in 1990 and then again in 2002, which is the version I read. How could 2 women have such completely different views of the same man? Gelsey thought his teaching ruined her body and only by going to other teachers was she able to alleviate some of the pain his techniques caused. Farrell thinks Balanchine’s approach allowed her to keep dancing as long as she did. Basically Gelsey fought everything about Balanchine, and Suzanne was completely attuned to what he wanted and enjoyed exploring new ideas of dance with him.
There were several huge differences between the two women. Gelsey came from a very creative family, started at Balanchine’s school at age 8 and went into the company at 15. Farrell arrived at the school at age 15 from the mid west (Cincinnati), about a year before Gelsey started since there is 7 years between them. Farrell had left when Gelsey joined the company 7 years later, and when she returned after being away 4 years, Gelsey had left the company. Farrell loved the music, and her musicality is what sets her apart. She was, as she says, Balanchine’s soul mate.
The biggest difference was Balanchine was madly in love with Suzanne and proposed to her while he was still married. The 41 years difference in their ages meant nothing to him, but fortunately it did for Suzanne. Jacques’ book describes just how irrational Balanchine became at this time, letting Suzanne basically run the company. Suzanne claims that although Balanchine said she could decide everything, she always deferred to him, or almost always. Emphasis on “almost.”
Consequently she was shocked when, after she married one of the other dancers while Balanchine was away getting a Mexican divorce, that Balanchine not only refused to pair her with her new husband Paul, but he accepted her resignation when she threatened to quit if he didn’t let her dance with Paul. One of my favorite lines in Farrell’s book is when she quotes another dancer who says that the best thing that happened to NYCB was when Farrell left and when she came back.
So now I am excitedly waiting for your book!

Reply

Henrik January 11, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Dear John,

Wow, thanks for your long comment!
The books you mention are really interesting! I never knew the “leap year” even existed, but now, I do really want to read it :)
Kirklands book was one of the first dancer-biographies I ever read, sometime in ground school.. I remember it made a strong impression on me. I though – wow, is it really that harsh? But she does make a lot of good points in the book! I must say I have to agree with her about the feelings connected to dance, contra Balanchines “abstract” approach.. Fortunately, today there is great examples of both.
I’m not very surprised Farrel and Kirkland has such different opinions on mr B, though. They were indeed two very different women, and where Kirklands ideals and perceptions often crashed with Balanchines, Farrels was a perfect match. I don’t really think mr. B was a very pleasant person, though, although undeniably a choreograph genius..

I’m flattered about you awaiting “my book”, but I think you will have to be patient a while still :) I might rabble together some memories and stories from my career someday, but I doubt it will be anytime soon :)
Thanks for your comment, and sorry for the delay replying. See you ’round?! Cheers
H

Reply

Leave a Comment

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: