First published 1957
My history with this book
Dancing Shoes was one of my favorite books as a child and I was interested to see how it would hold up.
Re-reading Dancing Shoes was sort of like seeing an old friend after many years and falling right back into a comfortable rapport. It was a wonderful experience, and it made me want to buy a lot of copies and start handing them out to every child I know. Dancing Shoes has two classic children’s book tropes: orphans sent to live with people who don’t particularly want them, and good characters triumphing over adversity (and an appropriate comeuppance for the villains of the tale).
Noel Streatfield wrote many beloved children’s books, including several with “Shoes” in the title. They’re not a series, but many of her books deal with children in the performing arts. Dancing Shoes is about a troupe of child dancers. Cora Wintle, a failed dancer/actress, runs a school for aspiring dancers in London. They’re called Wintle’s Little Wonders, and troupes of them perform in stage shows around the UK. Cora has a daughter, the beautiful and talented, but absolutely awful, Dulcie. Cora is the ultimate stage mother, pushing her child to fulfill Cora’s failed dreams of stardom. Of course, Dulcie doesn’t need much pushing, and she’s a spoiled little monster.
Dulcie is Cora’s main focus, so she’s not thrilled to learn that her husband’s sister-in-law has died, leaving two young daughters, Rachel and Hillary, orphaned (their father died some years earlier). Initially, Cora plans to take in only Rachel, since Hillary is adopted. Cora says:
It’s so tiresome, but it looks as if we may have to bring Rachel here. We have no responsibility for Hillary; she is an adopted child. I shall arrange to have her sent to a home. [Cora is the worst.]
However, once she realizes that Hillary has dancing talent, Cora decides that she’ll make a perfect Little Wonder, so both girls go to live at the dancing school with their Aunt, Uncle Tom, cousin Dulcie, and Pursie, the kind older woman who serves as housekeeper for the school.
I loved performing and I took dancing lessons as a child, so the story of performing kids was right up my alley. Also, I was a quiet, thoughtful child, and I’m sure I identified with Rachel, a quiet, thoughtful child who is often misunderstood. Her aunt is a woman of little perception, and she mistakes Rachel’s deep grief for coldness and jealousy toward Hillary.
In some ways, it’s a bleak life for Rachel. She’s forced to study dancing, with the objective of becoming a Wintle’s Little Wonder, although she has no talent and is totally unsuited for the dancing life. But there are some bright spots. Although Rachel and Hillary are very different in personality, they remain close. Cora’s husband, Uncle Tom, is a very kind man who actually takes the time to try to understand Rachel, and their relationship is lovely. Unfortunately, he’s very much under his wife’s thumb, and he can’t or won’t help Rachel with her dancing issues. (As an adult, I couldn’t help but wonder how Cora and Tom ever got together in the first place, as they seem to have nothing in common.) Pursie looks after Rachel and Hillary and gives them the love they’ve lacked since their mother’s death. Their tutor, Mrs. Storm, is also very kind, and she recognizes Rachel’s talents and best qualities and does her best for her pupil, defending her to Cora.
Rachel and her mother were convinced that Hillary, who is a talented dancer, must be trained as a ballerina, and Rachel becomes obsessed with making sure that Hillary is able to pursue ballet as a career, although Hillary herself doesn’t want it. Of course, Wintle’s Little Wonders don’t focus on ballet, but rather tap, acrobatics, and musical comedy, so Rachel spends a lot of time worrying about her sister learning the wrong kind of dance. Hillary is actually quite lazy, and doesn’t have the interest or temperament to be a ballerina, but Rachel ignores this and tries everything, including bribery, to get her to continue with ballet, even though Hillary prefers the Wintle’s sort of dancing and just wants to be a member of the troupe. But this obsession is just a way for Rachel to process her grief over her mother’s death, and as she finally begins to heal, she comes to accept that Hillary will never be a ballerina.
I found the descriptions of the dancing troupe and the theatrical life quite vivid, and as Streatfeild was a former actress, there’s a ring of authenticity to the world. Many of the shows that the troupe performs in are pantomimes, a particularly British form of entertainment, so that may seem a bit foreign to today’s readers.
The ending of this book is absolutely perfect (I won’t give any details to avoid spoilers), but virtue is rewarded and the villains are knocked down a few pegs. I loved the ending when I was a kid, and I still find it enormously satisfying as an adult.
Does it hold up?
Is there any objectionable content?
The attitudes toward adoption seem very dated. On the other hand, Rachel and Hillary never treat each other as anything less than sisters, and Uncle Tom welcomes Hillary as his niece, so it’s really only the dreadful Cora who acts as if Hillary is less than a true relation. There’s one passing reference to a “Negro” band. The context isn’t offensive, but the term is still jarring.
Can you read it aloud?
It’s a bit long for reading aloud, but most of the chapters are fairly short, so it might work
Would I want my kid to read it?
It’s available in print and as an audiobook.