In his New Memoir, Center Center, James Whiteside Doesn’t Mince Words
Center Center, published by Viking, is available August 17, 2021
If you’re wondering what James Whiteside, principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, did last year during the pandemic, here’s the answer: he wrote a book. How does that make you feel about your own productivity? Well, Whiteside isn’t one to waste time. His new book, which goes on sale in August, is a memoir, with the very clever title Center Center. Center center, in Whiteside’s words, is the name for “a mark on every stage around the world that signifies the center of its depth and width.” This, naturally, is where he aimed to be from a very young age.
The first thing to say about the book is that it’s not a typical dancer’s memoir. Whiteside doesn’t wax nostalgic about his first ballet teacher or describe the feeling of dancing Swan Lake. He doesn’t expound on his creative collaborations with this or that choreographer, or elaborate on the joys and sorrows of partnering famous ballerinas. Nor is the book a chronological account of his life and career, from ballet-crazed boy to top male dancer at a major ballet company.
As he himself describes the memoir in a letter to the reader in its opening pages, Center Center is an “absurd, nonchronological collection of essays,” written in various voices and styles ranging from quasi-journal entries to stream of consciousness lists, to something like a screenplay. Then there are the passages of straightforward narrative. He talks about coming out in his teens, and how hard it was, and about his complicated, and deep, bond with his late mother. He writes about sexual adventures, and the pets he’s lost, and getting stranded in the airport in Casablanca, and being attacked on the subway. And about developing his drag persona Ühu Betch and the joys of performing in drag.
Center Center is, in fact, a great read. Like his dancing, Whiteside’s writing has style, a sense of irony, humor, and total frankness. He doesn’t really have a filter—be prepared to read a lot about his sex life. But when he needs to be sincere, and honest, and raw, he can do that too. His account of his mother’s death is a truly heartbreaking, unsentimental, bleak, and honest exploration of loss, familial love, and the indignity of illness.
We recently talked about the book, what it was like to write, how he thinks about writing, and about why, even though he finds ballet confining at times, he still loves it to pieces.
So you wrote a book! Congrats. What drove you to it?
My goal was to make it something that would appeal to people who weren’t completely mired in dance. And honestly, I just wanted to make something that felt really natural to who I am.
How long did it take you to write?
I started in winter of 2019. And I finished it in the fall of 2020. I took Nutcracker season off in 2019 and went up to my friend’s place in Rhinebeck and just wrote for about a week to get a book deal. And then when the deal was made with Penguin Random House, I thought, now, when the hell am I gonna write this thing? And then there was this pandemic— I don’t know if you’re aware? And I had all the time in the world, and I just wrote every day, basically.
What’s your writing routine?
My favorite thing to do is to get up in the morning, make myself coffee, and then, before I eat breakfast, just sit down and map out what I want to do for the day. Sometimes I dive in right away, where I left off. And sometimes I do a little bit of research. And I will write until I’m starving. Then at 10, I’ll go make breakfast, come back, and continue writing. I’ll take another break around like 1:30 or two for an hour, eat lunch and maybe cleanse my brain watching a cartoon or something. And then I sit back down and write, maybe until about eight or nine.
Had you written before?
I’ve written poetry and music for 100,000 years, but I’ve never sat down and told stories. So it was a really exciting, fun, different journey for me.
The book contains many different kinds of writing: personal essay, journal-like writing, straight narrative, something like a screenplay. Why did you decide to do it this way, in all these voices?
My MO, generally, creatively is to be as daring and irreverent as possible. And if that means, not following a formula, that is exciting to me.
You write a lot about your family. What did you discover?
I did so much research about my family’s history. You don’t realize how much you don’t know about the people you’ve known for, in my case, 36 years. You have a lot of shared experience, but you have no encyclopedic knowledge. And something I’ve learned in writing this book is that every adult has a secret life that nobody knows about. And that’s really scary and interesting to me.
You write very movingly about your mother, who died of cancer in 2016. The two of you were really close. She comes across as a very charismatic, larger than life, but also complicated person. It’s a hard story, and I would say that it is really the heart of the book. What was it like to write about her?
I think that in writing about my mother, it was important for me to be truthful and also honor how much she did for me. It felt like the most important journal entry I could possibly write. And also, everyone is complicated, but this woman was very, very complicated. And I needed to find a way to sort of respectfully portray her in all her complexity. I just wanted people to feel the intense connection I had with her.
Was it hard to write about something so intimate and so painful?
Oh, devastating. I was a mess writing that essay, all the time. And I was alone all the time, so I just wandered around making coffee and just casually crying. It was really difficult. But it also felt really good to do. It felt really important to me. It was something that I needed to do. And I learned so much about myself and about all of my mistakes through the process.
You write about her conflicted reaction to your coming out. How did it affect your relationship with her?
It affected the way I wanted to be truthful with her, which was, not very much. It made me wary of letting her into my real world, because I felt like my real world was bad. I knew being gay was not going to be a popular choice, not that it was a choice. I just think her reaction set back our level of freedom and honesty.
While being queer itself is already like taking the road less traveled, it’s what you do on that road that defines you
One of the things I love about the book is how you describe being gay as this liberated, anti-bourgeois, utopian way of life, the opposite of the commonplace. There’s this great quote: “I believe normalcy to be an insidious evil, one that leaves you slowly shuffling down the path millions have taken before you. While being queer itself is already like taking the road less traveled, it’s what you do on that road that defines you—not the queerness.”
It gives you free rein outside of societal norms, which are incredibly restrictive. There’s no world in which I would ever not want to be gay. I look at my life, and I look at the freedoms I’m afforded. I can make the rules because I’ve already broken them.
There’s this sense in the book that you thought you weren’t as good as your peers in ballet. But you had this enormous drive to succeed.
I mean, I wasn’t up to the standards of my peers. I was not an obvious choice. But there’s something within me that makes me want to try to be. That drive is really important to me, and it inspires me to be better at every facet of my life. Not just ballet.
You’ve managed to scale to the top of your profession as a ballet dancer, while also maintaining careers as a drag performer (Ühu Betch) and a pop recording artist (JBDubs). How do these three very different kinds of creativity feed each other?
It’s all the same person, you know, it’s all part of me, every single bit of it in everything I do, even when I make a strictly classical ballet. You can see that there’s a drag queen in there, and someone with a pop music appreciation. It’s all just part of my appreciation for things that I enjoy in life.
A lot of dancer memoirs contain descriptions of working with this or that choreographer, and what it’s like to dance this or that ballet. You don’t really have any of that. In some way it’s not a ballet memoir at all.
It’s just that my unique experiences as a human almost trumps my maybe not-so-unique experiences as a classical ballet dancer. When I think about things in my life that are important to me, milestones, they’re things like starting dancing and coming out. The death of my mother. Sex, sexual exploration, friendship. Family. These are human things that everybody deals with, and they’re really important to me and they are probably really important to you. I want to connect with people. I don’t want to talk about this perhaps, esoteric experience I had in ballet. Even though maybe someday I will.
Do you still love ballet?
Oh, I love ballet. I know, people wonder if I actually even like ballet because I have so many other interests. But I feel my other interests do not diminish my love for ballet. It’s like ballet and I are in an open relationship. And I’m very committed to it, and we’re married and we love each other very much. But, you know, the reason I need to be open with ballet is because of my issues with it and what I’ve had to deal with, just getting to know what it really is, and understanding the societal relationship that America has with ballet. It’s about gayness, I guess.
So what is it you love about it?
Beauty! Beauty is my favorite thing ever. And I think that the exquisiteness of ballet is just unbeatable. It’s a feat of human magic.
What do you wish it did better?
I have not once had the opportunity to tell a story that I can relate to on a natural level. I need to play a gay person someday. This is insane. I’m 36 years old, and I have yet to play a gay person on a ballet stage. I can inject roles that I do with a little bit of gayness. Things like Iago and Othello, Von Rothbart in “Swan Lake.” But I want to make a three-act gay ballet. I have to get that opportunity. It’s something I’m working towards. I want to change the stories.
Tell me about the artwork in the book. It’s rough-edged, and funny, and somehow very East Village-y, even though the artist, Teddy O’Connor, is from LA, right?
Well, he grew up in New York. Yeah, the illustrations are so weird and strange, and each of the illustrations has so many layers of meaning. He works in animation, on a show called Rick and Morty, which is a wildly popular animated comedy science fiction show. And it just so happens to be one of my favorite shows, I think it’s brilliant. So when I got this book deal, I reached out to him and said, I really would love you to do illustrations for it.
Do you think you’ll write more?
Absolutely. I would love to try fiction.
What do you hope people will take away from your book?
My initial dream was for it to be a place for young queer people to feel seen, and emboldened to be expressive and themselves. But then, what happened was, I wrote a very adult book that is not good for minors, essentially. It’s explicit, it’s violent. It’s quite nasty in places. My goal for the people who do read it is that maybe they can feel what I hoped the young people would feel, and also that they have a friend and me. And if nature finds a way, and if the kids want to read it, I hope they’ll feel that way too.
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