Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill YouBy Dorian Cirrone

HarperCollins, February 2005
For ages 12-up
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Awards and Recognition

American Library Association Popular Paperback for Young Adults 2007

Amelia Bloomer List for Feminist Fiction 2006

New York Public Library Best Books for the Teen Age 2006

Texas State (Tayshas) High School Reading List 2006-2007

American Library Association Teens’ Top Ten Nominee 2005

100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader (Bitch Media)


Kayla Callaway has been studying ballet since she learned to walk, and her heart is set on a future in the dance world. She’s sure she’ll get a solo part in Cinderella, the spring ballet at her high school.

But when the parts are finally posted, Kayla is shocked that she’s only landed a role as a stepsister – and an ugly one, at that! The brutal truth: Ballet and big boobs don’t mix. Suddenly Kayla’s dream for the future has become a real-life fractured fairy tale.

To make matters worse, bloodred pointe shoes with threatening messages start popping up all over school. When Kayla learns that she’ll be wearing red pointe shoes in the ballet, she wonders if the messages are meant for her. But who are they from? And more important – what do they mean?


“Smart and humorous, negotiating some provocative territory with grace and flair and employing the Cinderella motif with quiet effectiveness.” (Recommended)
Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

“It’s terrific to have a cast of characters so talented, smart, and socially responsible.”

“Kayla is the sort of funny, generous person anyone would love to have for a best friend. …Cirrone is an author to watch.”
School Library Journal

“Cirrone’s debut novel convincingly portrays teens’ repartee with the ever-fertile issues of gender politics and self-expression. Combined with the unstinting supply of boob humor, this will keep many YAs, particularly those with breasts, amused and intellectually engaged.”

“The mystery and its resolution — as well as Kayla’s own soul-searching about her body – raise thought-provoking questions about cultural expectations for girls and women.”
Publishers Weekly

“This book explores the issues of peer pressure, conformity, becoming comfortable with self, and keeping a sense of humor when life hands you curves. It is funny, at times heart wrenching, and sure to be a hit  …”
Children’s Literature

“Throw in a protest (The Pen-Is Mightier Than Censorship) … a love interest who understands feminism, a rival saboteur, a gay best friend, more pop culture references, refreshing humor and dialogue, and a protagonist who finds self-acceptance in a judgmental society, and this will find a ready audience.”

“It is funny and hip and reminiscent of Rob Thomas but with softer edges.”
– Terri Lesesne (Professor Nana)

Excerpt from Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill You

It isn’t every day you walk into your sister’s bedroom and find a naked guy on her bed, especially when that guy is your best friend, Joey.

Now that I’ve gotten your attention – it’s not what you’re thinking. But isn’t it amazing what happens when you hear the word naked? The thing I didn’t mention is that my sister, Paterson, is an artist, and her bedroom doubles as a studio.

My parents named her that because she was conceived in a Paterson, New Jersey, motel room about eighteen years ago. When she was younger, she used to ask why she couldn’t have a normal name, like Ashley or Christine.

“You were lucky,” my mother would say. “If your father had taken another road, you could have been named Secaucus Callaway.”

It turned out my parents did a good thing – she’s definitely not an Ashley or a Christine. She’s tall and thin and her wardrobe consists mainly of various shades of black, with an occasional pair of jeans thrown in for comfort. Sometimes her hair is pink. Other times it’s orange. Lately it’s Electric Blue. She draws the line at piercings and tattoos because of their permanence. She says her body is an ongoing work of art.

Not too long after Paterson was born, I was conceived. It’s a picture I don’t want to think too much about, but it must have taken place in a pretty ordinary location because my parents named me Kayla – after nothing in particular. Just a name they both liked, with a little bit of alliteration with Callaway to satisfy my mother’s enthusiasm for poetic devices.

I’d almost forgotten that Joey was coming over to model for Paterson’s senior art portfolio. I knew Paterson had chosen him because he has a body most guys would kill for, but I didn’t expect him to be totally naked. Or is it nude? …

Teacher’s Guide to Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill You
Created by Dr. Joni Richards Bodart


Body image; dance; friendship; self knowledge; prejudice; stereotypes; sexism; school; politics; art; censorship; family relationships; homosexuality; humor; lying; revenge; individuality; love; dating; working; writing; poetry; secrets; betrayal.


  • Kayla Callaway: she’s sixteen and in spite of her double D breasts, she wants to be a ballerina
  • Paterson Callaway: Kayla’s older sister, she’s determined to be an artist, and is the main reason why the two of them are at Florida Arts High School
  • Joey: Kayla’s best friend and dance partner, he’s openly gay and determined to dance professionally
  • Melissa Edwards: she’s in Kayla’s ballet class and has been her rival since they were five
  • Gray Foster: the new guy in school, cute, charming, and immediately attracted to Kayla
  • Ivy Thompson: she’s in Kayla’s ballet class and has a body that’s perfect for ballet
  • Miss Alicia: Kayla’s ballet teacher and a former professional ballerina
  • Devin Demanne: a male dancer in Kayla’s class, who resents her because she won’t go out with him and she prefers Joey’s company to his
  • Lourdes Castillo: a Cuban immigrant who plans to dance professionally when she graduates
  • Ms. Halstrom: she teaches English at FAHS
  • Ms. Marone: she’s a guidance counselor at FAHS
  • Timm: a professional ballet dancer and the choreographer for Cinderella; he cast all the roles
  • Mrs. Callaway: she’s a third grade teacher
  • Mr. Callaway: he’s a psychologist
  • Principal Kovac: the students may laugh at him behind his back, but he is the final authority at FAHS


There’s no way I’m not aware of them – my boobs. It’s like eight pounds of flesh hanging off my chest. I know I have to wear an industrial size bra every day and three sports bras when I’m dancing. But I never thought they were a problem, or worse yet, abnormal!

I’ve been in ballet since I was five – that’s 11 years. And until Timm saw me dance, I’d always believed I could be a ballerina, in spite of my boobs. I was sure he’d cast me as Cinderella, and if not, at least one of the other leads. After all, I’d paid my dues dancing in the chorus for years. I deserved to get the lead! All I got was one of the ugly stepsisters, and I was waaaay better than that! Miss Alicia, my ballet teacher, explained that Timm said he couldn’t choreograph me because of my boobs. What did they have to do with my being a ballerina, specifically, Cinderella? According to Timm, “They have a mind of their own.” And if that shocked me, I nearly fell over when Miss Alicia agreed with him, and suggested I get breast reduction surgery!

I don’t know exactly how it happened, but the whole thing got all over school in what seemed like hours. Clubs even sprang up – Save the Hooters (most of the boys) and Reduce the Rack (mostly skinny girls with nothing of their own to need reducing) – and I didn’t know which side of the fence I was on. I mean, it would be nice to meet people who looked at my face before they looked at my chest, and wear those wispy Victoria’s Secret bras, and be able to fit into the world of ballet, that I suddenly wasn’t a part of. But I’m only 16, and this is a change I’d have to live with for the rest of my life! I’ve always thought I’d be a dancer, but now, I’m starting to wonder – is the price of being a ballerina just too high?

Kayla and Paterson Callaway are artistic, each in her own way, and they attend Florida Arts High School, affectionately knows as FARTS. Kayla is a dancer; Paterson is a sculptor and artist. It’s near the end of Kayla’s junior and Paterson’s senior year, and they both have big projects coming up. Paterson has her senior art project, and Kayla’s auditioning for Cinderella, the school ballet. She’s paid her dues for two years and spent the last summer taking six hours of ballet lessons a day, and she knows she’s just as good and maybe better than the other girls in class. If she doesn’t get Cinderella, she’s sure she’ll get a lead. But when the roles are announced, she’s just one of the ugly stepsisters. The choreographer says she doesn’t have the figure for ballet – she’s too top-heavy.

Paterson can’t believe it when Kayla tells her what happened. It’s incredibly, unbelievably sexist and wrong! It’s like the first version of Cinderella, when girls cut off their toes to fit into the Prince’s glass slipper. Kayla can’t be a ballerina until she makes her body fit the stick-like stereotype of the ballet world. Paterson is ready to take on all comers in her sister’s defense, but soon discovers she has problems of her own. Her senior project has been declared obscene by the principal. She has to start over. But it’s not obscene – it’s about how women and girls are expected and sometimes forced to change how they look and behave to fit the stereotypes that society has created. Those that can’t or won’t change are scorned.

Kayla’s body and Paterson’s art are both being censored. They are both being told to fit in at any cost, rather than to be individuals. They have decisions to make – will they fight back or fit in?

Major Themes and Ideas

  • You are more than your body.
  • Plastic surgery doesn’t change your mind or your personality, just your body. You’re still the same person you always were.
  • Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
  • It’s not hard for resentments and rivalries, especially old ones, to get out of control.
  • Accepting yourself for who you are can make others’ jeers less painful.
  • In the overall scheme of things, falling in love is not a gender issue. Heterosexual and homosexual relationships are equally valid.
  • There’s nothing sinful about homosexuality, it’s just another lifestyle.
  • The important thing about love is not the gender of the person.
  • The norm is what society says it is, and norms are always changing.
  • Believing in yourself means it’s okay with you when you don’t fit the stereotype.
  • Every profession has an ideal or a stereotype. Not fitting that ideal doesn’t mean you can’t be successful in that profession.
  • When someone resorts to personal insults, they are probably feeling threatened by the person they are threatening.
  • One person’s art is another’s obscenity.
  • Sometimes those who disturb the status quo are seen as threatening by those who don’t want to see challenges to the way things are.
  • While we do have to live within the boundaries of our society to a certain extent, it is also important to express yourself as an individual, rather than letting others govern your appearance and behavior.
  • Esoteric art is likely to be misinterpreted.
  • How art is interpreted is frequently, if not always, dependent on the context it is seen in and the culture that surrounds it.
  • Being unconventional is not a bad thing, but it’s much easier when you are comfortable with that lack of convention.
    In our society, women are frequently encouraged or forced into a safe and protected role, as if they were less strong and competent than men.
  • When women are attacked or raped, society’s first reaction is to blame them for it, implying that somehow they caused or invited it.
  • By its very nature, art is not always accepted and is frequently controversial, something that can also be said of adolescents.
  • Some adults seem determined to not understand what teens are all about.
  • People who believe intensely in their own agenda and promote it enthusiastically are not likely to be swayed by logic or reason, and perhaps not even by emotion.
  • A sense of humor makes life a whole lot easier.

Ideas for Book Reports or Book Discussions

  1. Compare the various versions of Cinderella mentioned in the book, and show how they do and do not relate to the plot of the book.
  2. Joey suggests that Kayla write and star in Booberella. Write a satirical plot summary of the play.
  3. Explain the meaning of The Red Shoes, both the books and the movie, and show why the author included them.
  4. Explain your understanding of obscenity, and why Paterson’s art project is or isn’t obscene.
  5. Respond to Gray’s comment on page 106 – “Why does anything that challenges the status quo have to be seen as threatening?”
  6. Discuss why the most creative people frequently cause the most controversy.
  7. Explain the connection between physical appearance and body image, including the effect that a drastic change in appearance might have on body image.
  8. In our society, women are encouraged to be protected, to take the safe path. Describe some women you know who have chosen not to do that, but to take a more risky path, and show how that decision has impacted their lives.
  9. Compare Robert Frost’s “Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood” with the decisions and choices Kayla, Paterson, Gray, Joey, and others made, and discuss what the more traveled and the less traveled roads for each of them might look like.
  10. Put yourself in Kayla’s position – how would you have interpreted the red shoes and their message, and discuss some of the other logical interpretations the students and faculty might have made.
  11. Is a protest demonstration a valid way to express disapproval? Why or why not? What are some other ways to accomplish the goals of Paterson’s demonstration?
  12. Kayla mentions several times that everyone who meets her looks at her chest and not her eyes. Explain how you might react if people seeing you for the first time reacted to your body and not your personality.
  13. There are two main plot lines in the book: Kayla’s unsuccessful determination to get a leading role in Cinderella, and Paterson’s successful attempt to say something significant with her senior project. Compare and contrast these two projects or plot lines and explain how each girl was changed by them.
  14. Censorship is a major theme in the book. Discuss how Kayla and Paterson were each censored.
  15. Discuss this concept and relate it to incidents from the book: Censorship is not always negative. On an individual level, it could be called kindness or tact, as you censor your own words in order to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. It can be seen as a form of protection of someone who is seen as vulnerable. It is only when it reaches beyond the scope of the individual that it becomes a negative force.
  16. Kayla has not made a decision about her future when the book ends. Speculate on what that decision will be and what she will be doing five years after getting out of high school and why.

Ideas for Booktalks

  1. Write your talk as if it was a series of headlines or newspaper stories.
  2. Focus your talk on character descriptions of Kayla, Paterson, Gray and Joey.
  3. Use a pair of red ballet shoes or a picture of a very thin ballerina as a prop.
  4. Have one of the four main characters narrate the booktalk in first person.
  5. Focus your talk on either Kayla’s or Paterson’s story.
  6. Gray is a character new to FAHS, and sees the situation through an outsider’s eyes. Let him narrate the talk, emphasizing his more unconservative perspective.
  7. Focus your talk on the ways characters are censored and why.


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