Yehudit “Ditty” Cohen attends Beis Hannah School and lives with her parents and six siblings in the haredi community in Melbourne, Australia. She and her best friend Sara discover a forbidden television set in Sara’s mother’s bedroom and Ditty is exposed to the magic, drama, and beauty of ballet. Ditty secretly checks out books about ballet at the public library, practices in her bathroom, and dreams of taking lessons. But, “what sort of preparation would that be for the Olam Haba?” her father asks when Ditty raises the subject with her parents. Ballet is not modest and her parents fear that she will be tempted by the secular world. Her “mission in life” is to be the best Jew she can be, to do mitzvos, and to help to bring the moshiach into the world. However, Ditty can’t help herself and starts to secretly attend lessons at the National Theater. Ditty is a natural and quickly excels at ballet but her success comes at a steep price. She finds herself breaking the Sabbath, eating non-kosher food, dancing with a male partner, and performing on stage. Her ballet teacher encourages her to audition for the Australian Ballet School and at seventeen, after five years of leading a double life, Ditty must choose between her family and her future.
Bavati portays the haredi community as rigid and inflexible, especially when best friend Sara is forced to sit shiva for her father when he re-marries a non-Jewish woman. But, she attempts to provide balance through Ditty’s aunt, uncle, and cousin, modern Orthodox Jews who provide support and encouragement. While Ditty’s particular situation may be unique, her struggle to balance her own dreams against her parents’ wishes and the expectations of her community are universal and something that teen readers of all backgrounds will instantly relate to. Ditty is a multi-dimensional character with a realistic and authentic voice; secondary characters are well developed. Tension builds and readers will anxiously turn the pages to find out how and when Ditty gets caught in her lies and what she ultimately decides to do. The sprinkling of Australian slang and the detailed descriptions of Ditty’s neighborhood and the city of Melbourne create a strong, authentic sense of place. Dancing in the Dark, while written for teens, will also appeal to adult readers who flocked to Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman and I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits.
Recommended for ages 11 and up.
Rachel Kamin is the Director of the Joseph and Mae Gray Cultural & Learning Center at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Illinois. A past chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee, Rachel is currently the co-editor of Book Reviews for Children & Teens for the Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter. She holds a BA in history from Grinnell College and a master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Michigan.