Perspective: Shining a Light on Dancers with Disabilities with Olivia Book

Canadian born, sixteen year old dancer,  Olivia Book is redefining what hard work and dedication look like in the ballet world. Born with only one fully formed arm, Book is breaking the mold of what a "traditional" ballerina looks like and wants to show other people that anything is possible with a little ingenuity and a lot of commitment. With the help of a barre attachment made by her dad, the encouragement from her teachers, and her own gumption, this current Ballet West Academy student is making her dreams come true and showing others that they can, too.

Olivia BookOlivia Book at YAGP Salt Lake City Regionals

Name: Olivia Book
Age: 16
Hometown: Grimsby, Ontario, Canada
Where you currently live/dance: Salt Lake City, UT; Ballet West Academy- Professional Training Division 
Favorite roles you've performed: Cinderella in Niagara Ballet's, Cinderella; Page in Ballet West's 75th Anniversary of The Nutcracker
Dream role(s): Aurora, Sleeping Beauty; Teresina, Napoli


What kind of pointe shoes do you wear?

I wear Nikolay pointe shoes which were formally known as Grishko in the U.S. I've been wearing the style 'Miracle' for four years now, and I love them!

Favorite dance wear brand(s)?
I love all Nikolay's products, from leotards to knitted warm-ups. I recently became a Nikolay ambassador! But if I had to choose solely a dance wear company, it would have to be Ainsliewear because they are a Canadian leotard company, and their leotards are so elegant and gorgeous! I love them so much!

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received:
The best and most memorable advice I've received was given to me the day before I competed at YAGP in 2019. My ballet teacher, Alice Burke, said to me, "Your body knows what it's doing. Trust it. Your technique will work and shine through even if you're not thinking about it. So just go out there and perform, and let your body do what it does best: dance."

How and when did you get your start in dance?
I started dance at the age of three, and at the age of nine, I joined a competitive team where I trained in many different styles such as jazz, hip hop, tap, lyrical, and ballet. I always loved dance, and ever since I was little, I always danced around the house and made up new choreography. When I was in grade school, my favorite style of dance was hip hop, and I was not a big fan of ballet until I got older and began to appreciate it more and love it. 

Olivia BookOlivia Book with a specialized barre attachment made for the use of her right arm.

What challenges have you faced throughout your dance journey?
The biggest and most frustrating challenge I have faced in my dance journey is doing my own hair. It's the one thing I wish I could do on my own. A few years ago, I did learn to put my hair in a bun... but after someone puts it in a ponytail for me! It was a huge step for me. Since I like my hair to be just so, I love that I can now put it in a bun all by myself. Another challenge in my dance journey is definitely holding the barre with my right arm, or my 'little arm'. Even though my dad built me my own barre attachment so I can hold onto the barre, it still acts as a challenge for me. My [right] arm is not as strong as my other arm which causes me to be less stable at the barre. But I guess that forces me to work harder!

Do you feel that there is a stigma around dancers with disabilities? What would you like people to know or better understand about your experience?
I feel that it's not very understood because it's not often seen in the ballet world. It does come with many challenges that you don't hear of often because there are not a lot of amputee dancers. Recently, even my ballet teachers have told me that the world is changing and becoming more accepting, and that this is the perfect time for dancers like me to shine through!

Olivia BookOlivia Book in a Contemporary Solo, 2019; © Danielle Earl Photography

I know you have competed in YAGP for a couple of years! What have those experiences been like for you?
They have been very nerve wracking but also very rewarding. I get super nervous before I go on stage to compete, but while on stage, I enjoy every minute of it. Last year at YAGP in Toronto (which was my first YAGP), it was more amazing than I had ever imagined. I performed two solos, and this is where I received an invite from Adam Sklute to attend the Ballet West Summer Intensive that led me to where I am today: Ballet West Academy. This past year in Salt Lake City, I competed in an ensemble piece [at YAGP] with Ballet West Academy. I also performed at the Night of Shining Stars Gala; it was an amazing experience! It was so incredible to share the stage and be backstage with world famous ballet stars in the gala. It was a night I'll never forget. I was also so excited that our ensemble received first place and we were invited to the New York finals.

Do you have any pre-performance or competition rituals/habits?
Before any performance, I make sure to do a good and long warm up to make sure I'm fully prepared to perform. I like to lay on the floor, listen to the music I'll be dancing to, close my eyes, and visualize myself dancing. This is really important to me, as it gets me excited to perform and less nervous. I also try to eat the same foods on the day of a performance as any other dance day so I know how my body will react and know that I will feel great throughout the day.

What does a day in the life of Olivia look like?
Every weekday I wake up around 8:00 and have breakfast. Then, I do online school until around 11:00 because at 11, I like to start getting ready for ballet. I like to give myself around an hour to get ready, as I take quite a while to do my hair. Then at 12:00, I make and eat lunch before I walk to class at 12:30 for my first class which is at 1:30. My classes are from 1:30-6:00; I have a technique class followed by an hour class of either pointe, conditioning, pas de deux, repertoire, or contemporary. Then, I have a short break before my second technique class of the day. After classes, I walk back to my apartment and do a few stretches while my muscles are still warm. After that, I shower and eat dinner (which I prepare on Sundays so that I don't have to worry about cooking when I get home from classes). Then at night, I always FaceTime my parents and update them on my day. I'll do some schoolwork if I didn't finish everything in the morning, or I'll relax and watch T.V. before I go to bed and do everything again the next day. My dance schedule is six days a week and Sundays are my day off!

Olivia BookOlivia Book in NG Generation Dance Wear

Do you have any other interests or hobbies?
Although I don't have a lot of time for hobbies, I do love to draw and paint, bake, and in the summer I love to play tennis with my family.

What are your long term and short term goals as a dancer?
My short term plan is to continue to train at Ballet West Academy in the Professional Training Division with goals of dancing more confidently in ballet class, being able to do consistent triple pirouettes en pointe, and having a more positive mindset when things don't go as well as I planned. I would also like to spend time working on my YouTube channel, as I have a lot of people asking me how I sew and darn my pointe shoes!

As for my long term goals, I hope to join a professional ballet company with a healthy environment and live out my dream!

Have you ever tried Pointe Paint?
I have not tried Pointe Paint, but I'm really interested in trying it! It would have been super helpful for my YAGP ensemble piece because I had to pancake my shoes, and it took FOREVER! So, I will definitely use Pointe Paint in the future!

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