Kristy Dempsey revisits a watershed moment in performing arts history in her sparkling new book, A Dance Like Starlight. The story’s spirited young heroine, an African-American girl who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer, lives with her mother in Harlem. The year is 1951. Struggling to make ends meet, the girl’s mother takes in washing. She also sews costumes for the ballet school, and the girl often accompanies her there. It’s a magical place, and the girl harbors secret hopes of joining the other students in class. When she dances by herself in the theater one day, the ballet master takes note. He’s impressed by her grace and invites her to take lessons.
Although the girl is forced to stand in the back of the studio during ballet class, she works hard and grows as a dancer. When she sees a concert at the Metropolitan Opera House featuring ballerina Janet Collins, the first African American to be hired by the revered institution, the performance proves incredibly inspiring. “It’s like Miss Collins is dancing for me, only for me, showing me who I can be,” the girl says.
A gifted ballerina, Collins was instrumental in breaking down racial barriers in the world of the performing arts. Dempsey skillfully intertwines the true story of Collins’ performance with that of her ambitious young heroine, building an inspiring narrative out of brief, poetic lines. Floyd Cooper’s expressive mixed-media paintings capture the transformative atmosphere of the theater and communicate the girl’s sense of awe and wonder as she watches Collins dance. His illustrations of old New York have a wonderful retro glow that adds to the magic of Dempsey’s story. A bravura performance from start to finish.