Rereading: The Deadly Dance by Cora Taylor

At some point in my childhood I read Cora Taylor’s The Deadly Dance. Having finally (re)discovered what the book I remembered was actually called (I remembered: bull dance. time travel. Crete. eating disorder. a scene by the hotel pool. an earthquake. an escape. a scene at the airport with her (reincarnated?) disabled crush and a very groan-worthy pun) and managed to obtain a copy through the miracle of an InterLibrary Loan (bless all libraries and librarians), here you are, my adult-reread-of-a-childhood-title.

Here’s the back copy:

In the flash of a moment, everything changed.

Fifteen-year-old Penny is on vacation with her parents, touring the ancient ruins of the palace of Knossos in Crete. She’s a gymnast, and — on impulse — starts to imitate a movement she sees in a wall painting. Suddenly, she’s in the ancient past, in front of a charging bull, watching others leap over it.

Will she be able to learn this deadly dance? And how long can she and her new friends — the bull dancers — survive?

Thoughts:

  • The Deadly Dance is Canadian?? I’d forgotten that. Very Canadian. This would have been a Red Cedar/Silver Birch/etc possibility in its day.
    • Its day being later than I recalled; the book was published in 2003. I’d somehow thought it was released before 2002.
    • And by Canadian, I mean that the author and the characters are Canadian. Woot! Penny and her parents are Canadians (prairie people) on vacation.
    • They’re also Greek: Knossos isn’t the only draw, but the tiny Cretan village where Penny’s beloved Yia-yia was born.
  • The family dynamics are both front and centre and background. Penny and her parents are on this particular trip not just because it is her mother’s dream trip, and not just because of her father’s family, but for Penny: to give her a break from her older brother Tom.
  • Getting away from her gymnastics coach and his verbal abuse is just as much a relief.
    • ALTHOUGH Penny isn’t truly free of either bully. She’s internalized a lot of their vicious remarks and general fatphobia.
    • There’s no official diagnosis, but I read Penny as having anxiety and an eating disorder (the second is often tied to the first): she avoids eating, feels sickened by food, and throws up from stress. Also she’s terrified of being fat and wants her body to be pure muscle.
    • Neither of these problems is entirely dealt with in the book – Penny isn’t called out on her (internalized) fatphobia; there’s no revelation of or solution planned for the abuse she is suffering at home/in the gym.
    • What the story does give is Penny in a high-stress environment (the bull ring – literally life or death in contrast to her emotional/metaphorical situation at home) with friends who care for her and a team with which she belongs.
  • Enter Pylia, Penny’s opposite (partner) in the dance. Pylia and Penny’s friendship is wonderful.

She felt Pylia take her hand and squeeze it. How strange that even without language she could feel such communication, such friendship from someone.

  • So we’ve got two girls becoming best friends and looking out for each other, not just in the bull dance but with facing other fears. With trusting each other with hopes, with silly jokes, with stolen food.
  • Also, a gentle, brave team captain. Rhion. Whom Penny very much likes.
  • And to whom she stands up when she doesn’t approve of his behaviour.
  • (Spoiler: she thinks he’s flirting with two girls at once. He isn’t.)
  • Pylia isn’t the only girl who is kind and caring: Charis is, also; and the rest of the team. They are a team. Which to Penny is water on parched soil.

  • Cultural norms – shirtlessness among the female bull dancers, for instance – are taken in stride with a generous pinch of common sense and good humour.
  • The whole story takes place over at most two weeks. It packs a lot of implied backstory and emotional ups-and-downs into these few days of travel in a foreign/home-land.
  • There are a few sketched scenes of traveling the Greek countryside that felt so real, barely drawn as they are.
  • (MAJOR SPOILERS) My only complaint – which is not one I had as a child, because then I accepted everything written as perfect as it was, is that the bull dancer Penny meets in her own time again is Rhion, or Ray. If you really want to read into the text, Pylia becomes Penny’s many-times grandmother, so I guess that way it makes sense that Penny can’t meet her again. But it seems suspiciously convenient that the boy she has a crush on is the one she gets to meet again. Sweet and lovely (Rhion’s arm is crushed and Ray has a prosthetic – I like very much that his disability wasn’t written out), but also, truthfully I think Penny needs a friend at home more than she needs a boyfriend. On the other hand, Penny and Rhion/Ray have an established level of trust and respect, so at least they will be a healthy pair of friends-who-are-most-definitely-going-to-date. And it is lovely and tidy that Penny goes home, where her abusive coach is, with Ray, who (as Rhion) is explicitly established as an entirely different sort of leader and coach. I liked the story very much, I just wish Pylia wasn’t written out at the end. Pylia edges out Rhion in terms of importance to Penny through the bulk of the narrative, so it feels odd and slightly contrived that he supplants her in the final pages.
  • Tl; dr: I’m glad I reread this. Not all of Penny’s pressing problems are addressed, but the narrative (her adventures in Crete with the bull dancers) give her the internal resources via friendship and team camaraderie that the reader is confident that this is a turning point in Penny’s life. This is where she begins to heal and reclaim her body as her own. History nerds? Gymnasts? Friendship fans? Dive in.

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