The Phoenix Dance, by Dia Calhoun, is an imaginative re-telling of the classic Grimm’s fairytale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses that interweaves the story of a young girl trying to find her place in the world. In both stories, twelve beautiful and tragic princesses are locked up each night, only to awaken in the morning with their delicate slippers worn away to shreds and their minds and bodies exhausted. In The Phoenix Dance the young heroine, of the same name, has dreams of becoming a shoe maker’s apprentice and practices her craft by making shoes for her aunts, all three of whom are dancers in the mystical kingdom of Windward. Phoenix fights against the confines placed on her by society which labels her as a “beggar child” and by her aunts who wish for her to follow in their artistic footsteps. When her opportunity to realize her dream finally comes true, she finds herself overwhelmed with excitement and joy, until disaster strikes.
The twelve princesses of Windward have danced their way through every pair of shoes made for them by the royal shoemaker, under whom Phoenix is apprenticed, causing him to lose his royal status. To help solve the mystery of how the princesses manage to dance their shoes to shreds, while locked inside their rooms at night, a contest is held in the kingdom to find not only a new Royal Shoemaker but an answer to the mystery. Phoenix is not only awarded the role of the newest and youngest Royal Shoemaker but also the task of finding out what happens to the princesses each night. To solve the mystery Phoenix must face dangerous wizards, troubling friendships, treachery and her own frightening foray into the Illness of Two Kingdoms, a disease that leaves her feeling joy and sorrow to the utmost extreme and is perhaps the most challenging danger of all.
Review written by Jen.
Dia Calhoun grew up in Seattle, Washington, where she studied ballet for many years. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Mills College with a double major in English and Book Arts. Calhoun returned to Seattle to build a successful career as a freelance lettering and logo artist. Her most visible work is the logo for “Alaska” on the side of Alaska Airlines’ aircraft. She also taught typography and lettering at the Cornish College of the Arts.
Now a full time writer, Calhoun makes frequent school visits to share her work with kids. In her spare time she sings Italian arias, fly-fishes, gardens, and eats lots of chocolate. She lives with her husband, two cats, and two ghost cats in Tacoma, Washington.
The kingdom of Windward is a beautifully imagined place, full of mystery and magic, was there a place or idea that inspired you to create this setting for your stories?
Yes! The Queen Charlotte Islands in Canada inspired the setting. While I was there I visited a garden by the sea, and that inspired me to create the world of Windward in my first book about that world, Aria of the Sea.
The story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses is a classic fantasy tale, why did you choose this as a subplot for your own novel? Was this a specific appeal in the original story that you felt fit well with that of Phoenix?
I always loved the tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses when I was a girl. All those princesses! All those dresses! When, in my adult years, I was diagnosed with bipolar two illness, I came to think of the Twelve Dancing princesses as also suffering from bipolar illness. They’re wild dancing all night long seemed to exhibit mania. I wondered how they would be during the day after all that wild dancing, and thought they would be terribly tired and depressed. So the mood swings of the princesses seemed to echo Phoenix’s mood swings.
Phoenix’s aunts are a great support for her and she has a very close and understanding relationship with them throughout the book. Have you had role models and mentors like this throughout your life?
Oh, yes. I have had many role modles and mentors. One of my favorites was my High School English tutor. She made me love books, poetry, writing, and made me believe in myself.
How did you start your writing career? Was it a dream of yours, as being a shoemaker was for Phoenix?
Yes, writing was my dream. I wrote stories and poems in school and majored in English in college—with lots of creative writing classes. But I didn’t start writing regularly every day until I was about 27 and bought my first computer. It took me five years to write Firegold, working about an hour a day during the week, and more hours on the weekend. Then it took me five years to sell it to a publisher. Then it took two more years for the publisher to turn it into a book. So that’s a total of twelve years from beginning the book until I held it in my hands.
It was mentioned that most of your novels are placed in a fantasy setting and many seem to tell the stories of young people with mental health issues. Why did you choose to not only target a younger audience but to also place your stories in more mythical settings?
I write for teens because I am interested in the process of transformation. To be a complete adult you have to keep transforming yourself throughout your life, keep remaking yourself. Teenagers are doing this very intensely, and I find that fascinating. I put my stories in fantasy settings because I believe that unicorns and dragons really exist—the unicorns are our higher selves and the dragons are our darker selves.
In your biography it mentions that you have also lived with bipolar disorder. Has writing this novel, and thus sharing your own story, helped you to understand your experiences?
Yes, it has been very rewarding. I kept my bipolar disorder a secret for many years—until I finished writing The Phoenix Dance. I was afraid of the stigma and prejudice against those who battle mental illness. But when I finished Phoenix I thought how much more good the book would do in the world, if I shared the fact that it was based on my own experience with bipolar disorder.
Have you received feedback from readers about your novels and how they relate to mental health issues?
Yes, I have received lots of feedback about Phoenix. Once, for example, after I spoke about it at a school assembly, a girl came up to me and said she felt inspired now to share a secret she was carrying.
For youth looking to share their own stories and experiences with mental health what first steps would you recommend?
Write it! In a poem, a story, a play, an essay. That is a way to start exploring how you feel about your own situation, and the first step to sharing your understanding of it with others.
Many young people experience major setbacks and disappointments in life, similar to what Phoenix must have experienced when her painstakingly designed shoes were danced to shreds. What sort of advice can you offer to a youth who has experienced this type of obstacle in their lives?
Obstacles are put here to test us and make us stronger. All heroes in books are tested by obstacles over and over again; this is part of the journey of life.
For a reader who may be experiencing Bipolar Disorder as well, what guidance can you offer on how to handle the turmoil associated with the illness?
You need to get a really good support system of friends, family, and mental health practitioners to help you with this illness. There is no cure for it, so you must learn to live your life along side it. I have found that if I rely on my support system, and take my medicine every day, I manage pretty well. There will always be difficult times with this illness. But as you gain more experience with it, you will remember during the dark times that you fought your way through them before, so you know you can do it again. And on the bright side, many people with bipolar illness are very creative, so that is something to value and honor.