Gavin Larsen on the Agony & Ecstasy of Being a Ballerina

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FF2 Guest Post by Martha Anne Toll

I spent long years tilling the writing vineyards before my debut novel, Three Muses, found its home with Regal House Publishing. (See link below!)

Having written a prima ballerina as a main character, I made it my business to read ballet books, particularly before and after I wrote my novel. (Like many writers, I tend to stay away from books on topics about which I am actively writing.)

In this light, I was delighted to discover Gavin Larsen’s Being a Ballerina: The Power and Protection of a Dancing Life. (See link below!)

Larsen was a professional dancer for eighteen years before retiring in 2010. She performed as a principal dancer with the Oregon Ballet Theatre, danced with Alberta Ballet and the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, and was a guest artist with Ballet Victoria.

Ballerinas have painfully short working lives. Retirement is normal and expected by age thirty-five, and on rare occasions postponed until age forty-two or so.

This brief career span is well understood by the members of the profession and partly accounts for the thrill of watching ballet. Dancers put more than their “all” into performances. They take terrifying bodily risks, and spend every waking moment pushing themselves to their physical limits and beyond.

Like so many in her field, Gavin was disappointed to have to leave the stage. When I interviewed her last year for Bloom (see link below), she told me: “I was… let off carefully and with respect. But this was not a discussion. It was happening.” On the other hand, she said she knew it was time: “My body hurt — a lot — and I didn’t feel confident in my physical ability anymore.”

To address the fear that she would lose the small details that made up her artistic life, Gavin told me she began to record “the performances that made a dancing life so special… the tiny things that make up a dancer’s core, and her place in the world…”

She remembered feeling “desperate” to write down “as many episodes, fragments of memories, conversations, snapshots of time” as she could. These memory pieces became the core of her book.

Being a Ballerina chronicles Gavin Larsen’s life growing up in New York City, the riches that that city offered to her as she grew increasingly committed to ballet, and the insights she has gained from her teachers and mentors.

Ballet is an art form that is passed from teacher to student, in ways that have not changed much in hundreds of years.

Ballet is an art form that is passed from teacher to student, in ways that have not changed much in hundreds of years. Dancers trace their own techniques back through a chain of earlier dancers. Among her many teachers, Gavin studied with the legendary ballerina Alexandra Danilova for a short time.

Gavin has definitely landed on her feet post-retirement. She makes her living now as a ballet teacher in Asheville (NC), providing her own link in the chain. She teaches professionally-bound students as well as adult amateurs.

In a reflection of her meticulous attention to her art, Gavin recognized her ability to explain steps to her peers and sought out mentors to guide her teaching. She strengthened her ability to helm a classroom by being mentored by the director of the Alberta Ballet School, as well as the director at Oregon Ballet Theatre School.

Larsen continues to write and has been a contributor to Pointe, Dance Teacher, Dance Spirit, Dancing Times, Oregon ArtsWatch, and elsewhere.

Being a Ballerina is written with clarity and insight. It is a highly informative memoir about the life of a ballerina, so it should have special appeal to readers interested in the nitty-gritty of dance training and the demanding road to becoming a dance professional.

Larsen does not shy away from ballet’s relentless physical demands and frequent injuries. So too, she transmits her pleasure in dancing and in the magic of performance. She has more than met the challenge of taking this ethereal artform and rendering it to the page.

© Martha Anne Toll (1/27/22) Special for FF2 Media®

Martha Anne Toll is a Washington, DC-based writer and reviewer. Her debut novel, Three Muses, won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and is forthcoming from Regal House Publishing on September 20, 2022. Reach out to Martha at, or on Twitter @marthaannetoll and Instagram @marthatoll.

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Click here to order Gavin Larsen’s Being a Ballerina from Amazon.

Learn more about Martha Anne Toll’s prize-winning novel Three Muses on the Regal House Publishing site.

Read Martha’s full interview “The Tragic Beauty of Dance: Q & A with Gavin Larsen” on the Bloom site.

MORE FROM MARTHA: In its insider’s view of the profession, Being a Ballerina resonates with earlier books penned by working dancers. If you love this topic too, I have three more books to recommend.

  • Choura is Alexandra Danilova’s first-person account of her rise from an impoverished little girl in Russia to her emigration to Europe with a fellow student (George Balanchine no less!) to a celebrated ballet career in America.
  • Ballet to the Corps is Marie Paquet-Nesson’s memoir about touring across America during the 1950s, as well as overseas in the Middle East and the Soviet Union.
  • Winter Season: A Dancer’s Journal is Toni Bentley’s engaging diary of a season with the New York City Ballet toward the end of George Balanchine’s reign in the early 1980s.


Featured Photo as well as Being a Ballerina book cover images provided by Gavin Larsen for use with this post. All Rights Reserved by Gavin Larsen and University Press of Florida. (Photo Credit: Blaine Covert)

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “Who’s Your Dancer?” poster by Alicia J. Rose pulled from Openverse. Click here for Flickr link.

Tags: Alexandra Danilova, ballet, Being a Ballerina, dance, Gavin Larsen, George Balanchine, Marie Paquet-Nesson, Martha Anne Toll, New York City Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Three Muses, Toni Bentley

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