Identity, Dance and Swing Time by Zadie Smith

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Feeling comfortable with who you are can be complicated…a difficult journey for many who feel different from others.  Often this is just a perception, as we all come from various sordid places and are birthed from unique people with their own individual backgrounds.  

I am lucky enough to be part of a group that feels like home, a safe place to tap into who I am and also feel connected to others. For 15 years I have been taking the same dance class and, although there has been some ebb and flow of participants through the years, there is always a solid group of regulars who together create a warm atmosphere of acceptance for all who take part. We come together because of dance, and the positive, nurturing environment our teacher, Luisa, creates and sets the example for. In the safety of the four walls where we convene, we express ourselves freely as individuals, and collectively when we catch eyes in the mirror, simultaneously experiencing heightened endorphins and joy from the movement and the music.  From married, single, children, no children, business owners, workers, retired… to under 40, over 80, black, white, asian, immigrant, townie…everyone has their own unique identity that is accepted and celebrated in the shared space filled with each person’s confidence, energy and light.

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Our dance family has planned outings on occasion, providing us with opportunities to talk, get to know each other and develop connections and friendships that increase the fulfillment of time spent together.  Recently this unique community of ours started a book club, and this month we chose to read Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time. We selected it because we thought it was about two girls who were brought together through dance. We thought we were going to love it.

It started out about a dance class uniting two young girls, but quickly veered away and was really about much more.

Book Club Impressions

In Swing Time, an unnamed narrator told her story and we, as readers were the observers, charged with the task of understanding and finding meaning in her life.  She was a light skinned black girl who came from a mixed race family. She was drawn to Tracy, another racially mixed girl from her dance class and they became fast friends. Their young friendship was strong, the narrator became Tracy’s loyal sidekick, and then the friendship faded as their lives went in different directions. The narrator’s lack of proficiency in dance led her to becoming an assistant to a pop star, while Tracy pursued a dance career but ended up unemployed with three children each from a different father.  Mixed race, broken homes, untapped talents and unfulfilled dreams, drug overdoses, neglected friendships and bad relationships, betrayals, lack of support systems, poor decisions and misdirection sum up the challenges the characters faced, but the underlying theme was everyone’s search for identity, self fulfillment and acceptance. 

Only half our group was able to finish the book, as we all mostly agreed it felt like it was a bit of slog, an emotionless slice of life, providing nothing of great interest to tap into our curiosity.  An anonymous narrator with lack of ambition didn’t show enough of herself to create connection with us. We never even knew her name.  I believe the author intended to keep all the characters at arms length in order to allow readers to draw conclusions about identity, race and wealth from their actions, but for our group this approach fell flat.

This was an ironic book choice for a diverse group that collectively has the opportunity to feel supported, connected and in touch with their individual identity in a warm and accepting environment.  So it is not surprising that we were not overjoyed with a story about unresolved personal journeys, struggles and unfulfilled dreams. In the book, the time periods jumped around quite a bit and despite the easy to read prose, Swing Time was a challenge to follow and not as engaging as we had hoped.  It definitely was fodder for rich discussion though, and while the characters in the book struggled, we bonded.   Read this one at your own risk.

Goodreads Summary 

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About the Author:

Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, and NW, as well as a collection of essays, Changing My Mind. Swing Time is her fifth novel.

Visit www.zadiesmith.com for more information.

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