Renée Nicholson writes about two different parts of her life in Fierce and Delicate: Essays on Dance and Illness. Initially, she’s the young dancer making sense of competition, instructor corrections, and visions of the future. As the essays progress, Nicholson explains her life with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), which radically changed her ballet dreams. Still, she skillfully combines her two loves—writing and ballet—into an inspiring memoir told in distinct essays.
Nicholson inhabits that younger version of herself in the first group of essays. While reading, I honestly thought she wasn’t the mature writer that she is. Instead, her perspective seemed entirely youthful with its angst and uncertainties.
But as the book progresses, I realized that Nicholson is indeed a woman with more experience. Her fundamental voice is the same in all the essays, but they become more tinged with maturity as they progress.
How the author navigates her RA is an important part of the book, but it’s not the whole story. In my experience, writing about chronic illness is like dancing in a perfectly straight line. Sounding whiney is on one side of that line, and Nicholson never crosses it. Instead, she simply shows resilience and grace.
Fierce and Delicate also reminded me of brilliant 20th century dancers I loved in my youth. My mom, grandma, and I attended as much ballet as we could afford. And Nicolson’s discussion of learning to teach when you can’t dance is a truth about aging that touched my 50-something heart.
Nicholson writes with focus and skill. Every essay is tightly crafted, and every paragraph has a purpose. Some memoirs just spew language from brain to page. Maybe this started that way, but Nicholson took that first draft and drilled it into shape like a prima ballerina’s most valued teacher creates perfect form.
This is a book I found because of a publicist. (What a privilege book blogging is!) Sadly, it won’t get a big marketing campaign or book tour. But if you love dance, live with chronic illness, or understand the challenges of remaking life as it progresses, you must seek this out.
Pair with another book about dance, life, and chronic illness—Battle for Grace: A Memoir of Pain, Redemption and Impossible Love by Cynthia Toussaint.
Many thanks to West Virginia University Press, Books Forward, and the author for a digital advanced reader’s copy in exchange for this honest review.