Veronica Schanoes, “Ballroom Blitz” – WOD #3

Two ambiguously gendered/sexed punks in pale pinky-beige and charcoal with mohawks face each other, nose to nose. They share what appears to be a cigarette or joint between their mouths and a lighter patch of smoke that simulates the twirl of a dancer rises between their heads. Barely visible in red-black against a red-black ground, the right hand figure's arm is bent up, her (because earrings and fingernail polish suggest a she) hand cradles 'his' face visually separating his darkened eyes from the tribal tattoo partially visible on his neck. Taken as a whole, the image is suggestive of a cracked but not broken heart.

“Ballroom Blitz” by Veronica Schanoes. Art by Anna and Elena Balbusso.

And the girl in the corner said boy I want to warn you It’ll turn into a ballroom blitz. – The Sweet, “The Ballroom Blitz

This story‘s harder than “Burning Girls” also by Veronica Schanoes. Harder in that its words are sharper, uglier, darker, but also because it’s more honest, which makes it harder to process. “Burning Girls” is a fantasy, a reminder that “Jews were here” in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and in the history of the New York City. It reimagines Rumpelstiltskin as one of the lilim (demonic children of Lilith). It takes a familiar story and makes it Jewish.

“Ballroom Blitz,” on the other hand, is not a Jewish story on its face. According to the author, however, the protagonists Jake (Auslander) and Isabel (Goldman) are both Jewish; there were, she observes, “plenty of Jews on the punk scene.” Like “Burning Girls,” “Ballroom Blitz” reimagines a classic fairy tale: “Twelve Dancing Princesses.” It doesn’t recast the story into a Jewish milieu, or make it a feminist tale, but instead visits the world of another misunderstood group: non-neurotypical people, the clinically depressed and suicidal.

Schanoes explains that this story arose out of her own struggles with depression. This is the honesty/truth that makes the story harder to read. There’s no real joy in the story, even with the nearest-to-happy ending I can imagine for the characters. The humor is dark. The moral that depression does not ‘go away’ is bleak but somehow not hopeless. After all, Jake does figure out what he needs to do, and he does go to get Isabel, and he does commit to caring for her.

The reversal — that she saved him first — saves it from being another annoying story of a damsel distressed. But at the same time, Isabel comes across as lacking agency. She complains that Jake never asked about her, but she also never told him. She used him and the mindless music, dance, drugs and sex he offered to self-medicate. She treated her symptoms and not her disease. Sure, Jake’s the one who needed to learn the lesson. Note, it isn’t entirely clear to me what lesson he was supposed to learn, since ‘don’t beat the shit out of vulnerable people’ would seem self-evident. Possibly, ‘help the vulnerable rather than harming them’? Yet, even if it is Jake who needs the lesson, and Jake is full up with rage and the pointlessness of his existence, once she’s saved him, Isabel ends up in a similar state, voluntarily trapped, and not interested in healing herself without Jake. So even if it’s not an archetypical damsel in distress, it still reinforces the “I need a man” trope that the author herself seems to hate.

On the other hand, the story does replicate the depressive cycle and shows how mentally ill people can find meaning in helping each other, find strength in caring for each other. This, it seems to me, is a fairly Jewish message about the responsibility of a community to care for its poorest and weakest.

I don’t mean to be setting up a row of straw men, as though Schanoes has claimed this story to be feminist, Jewish, etc. I’m not making an argument at all, really. Just looking at fiction by Jewish authors and fairy tale adaptation, examining them for their own sake and also to see whether they resonate with me/I recognize them. So, what I like about this story is that these characters are Jewish, but that’s not apparent in the story. They’re Jewish, but that isn’t material to the story, and so it settles into the background, unknown and unnoticed unless you dig deeper. “Ballroom Blitz” is a story about Jewish people qua people rather than qua Jews or Jewish, which is of value too.

Undeniably, the prose is the best part of this story. I feel it, every filthy beat of the music, every scrape of knuckles against concrete walls. What I take away from the story is that ‘inspired by’ rather than ‘adapted from’ might be a good choice in dealing with fairy tales, and that vivid characterization can overcome a limiting premise. Even if “Ballroom Blitz” isn’t the most empowering story about mental illness, it is a recognizably true story and one worth reading.