On this day in 2002, Holding On to the Air was published. A bright and exciting exploration of the career of ballerina Suzanne Farrell, this book was written by Toni Bentley, whose bold transition from professional ballerina to author made her the perfect person to write it.
Toni Bentley is an Australian-German-American dancer and writer who has forever shifted the dance world with her boldness, both on the stage and on the page. Toni’s passion for dance was ignited early on. She began her formal dance training at the prestigious School of American Ballet in New York City when she was only ten, and her undeniable talent quickly became apparent. In 1974, at the age of seventeen, she joined the New York City Ballet, becoming one of the youngest members of this renowned company.
During her time with the New York City Ballet, Toni worked closely with the legendary choreographer George Balanchine, whose innovative approach to ballet had a profound influence on her artistry. She became known for her expressive and moving performances in George’s works and performed with the New York City Ballet for ten years, until she retired due to a hip injury.
In 1986, Toni made the bold decision to leave the world of professional dance and pursue writing. Her memoir, Winter Season: A Dancer’s Journal (published in 1989), provides a candid and introspective account of her time as a ballerina. It explores the personal and artistic challenges she faced and the physical and emotional demands of ballet. The book’s publication was met with both praise and controversy, as Toni openly discussed her experiences and relationships within the ballet world in it, including a chapter on her sexual awakening. Her unapologetic exploration of her own desires challenged societal norms and sparked debates within the generally conservative ballet community.
Toni Bentley’s transition from dance to writing marked the beginning of her second act, permanently solidifying her as a fearless artist not afraid to break out of the mold. One of Toni’s most notable works is The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir (2004), which delves into her experiences with sexual submission in a daring celebration of female desire and sexuality.
Her literary pursuits also expanded beyond her memoirs, including essays, historic novels, and reviews. Often, Toni’s works center around the dance world, the female experience, or both.
In Sisters of Salome, for example, Toni delves into the history of dance and sensuality by exploring the lives and artistry of four influential dancers from the early 20th century: Maud Allan, Ida Rubinstein, Mata Hari, and Colette. Through their stories, Toni explores the intersection of dance, eroticism, and societal perceptions of female sexuality in a historical account of the femme fatale and the origins of the striptease.
Toni also wrote two biographies about influential women in the dance world: Costumes by Karinksa showcases the life and work of costume designer Barbara Karinksa, and Holding On to the Air (1990) is about Suzanne Farrell, an American ballerina and the founder of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet.
Most recently in 2022, Toni came out with Serenade: A Balanchine Story, a moment-to-moment account of the performance of a ballet that Balanchine worked on for many years of his career. In a review of the book, FF2 contributor Martha Anne Toll says, “[As] Toni aptly shows, performance is only the tip of the ballet iceberg. A ballet is made up of music and costumes and choreography and lighting and years and years of training. For lovers of ballet, this book lifts the curtain on these multiple aspects of Serenade. For those who are unfamiliar with ballet, the thrill of Serenade is the way it unfurls each aspect of creating a complex work of art, in which dozens of people bring their expertise to bear. Ballet is nothing if not highly sophisticated artistic collaboration.”
Toni Bentley’s life and career are a testament to her unwavering commitment to self-expression and artistic exploration, even if it means going down an unconventional path. Her willingness to confront societal taboos and challenge conventions has left an indelible mark on both the dance and literary worlds.
© Julia Lasker (9/25/2023) FF2 Media
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CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo: Dancer in Arabesque: Maria Calegari; dancer on floor: Judith Fugate. Photo Credit: Martha Swope. Provided by Toni Bentley and used with her permission.
Bottom photo: Portrait of Toni Bentley. Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik. Provided by Toni Bentley and used with her permission.