Book Review: Fierce and Delicate: Essays on Dance and Illness, by Renée K. Nicholson

By Katherine Itacy

Genre(s): Memoir; Dancer Autobiography


Fierce and Delicate is Renée Nicholson’s love letter to the art of dance. The memoir details the unrelenting and often unrealistic requirements of ballet dancers, the competitiveness and cattiness exhibited by so many in the field, the joy and pride Nicholson so often felt while rehearsing and performing, and the sheer agony she experienced when a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis prematurely ended her professional career. In this collection of essays, Nicholson seeks to rediscover meaning, passion, and artistic expression in her life as a chronically ill person.


Fierce and Delicate: Essays on Dance and Illness recounts Ms. Nicholson’s journey to become a professional ballet dancer, as well as the early retirement she was forced to take after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (R.A.) at the age of twenty-one.

Rest assured – you don’t have to understand or enjoy anything about ballet to appreciate the passion and dedication Renée Nicholson has displayed for the art form for nearly her entire life.

I personally identified with Nicholson’s dream of becoming the best athlete in her field, her years of sacrificing a personal life and pushing her body to its absolute limit in order to achieve that dream. And sadly, I know all too well what it’s like to have a chronic illness get in the way of accomplishing your athletic goals. I, too, know the heartbreak that comes with acknowledging that no matter how hard you’ve worked, how talented you are, or how long you’ve dreamed of achieving your goals, your willpower and determination are no match for an incurable autoimmune disease’s relentless attack on your body.

Ms. Nicholson’s essays cover her years of ballet training, competition, and performance, how the art form focuses on perfection (in both one’s ballet technique and physical appearance), her struggles to form true friendships with her fellow competitors, her R.A. diagnosis and decision to stop dancing, how she decided to become a writer, and ultimately, her journey back to dance.

I will say that because the book is a collection of essays as opposed to a more traditional memoir, at times I did find it a bit difficult to keep the timeline of events straight in my mind as I continued reading.

I also felt as if Ms. Nicholson still has a bit of unresolved resentment/anger toward her illness and her forced early retirement. While I completely understand feeling that way (and, indeed, have felt that way), in my opinion, it does her memoir a disservice. Nicholson so eloquently expresses her love of and devotion to dance throughout the book, and even recognizes that by writing about dance, she continues to have a meaningful artistic outlet in her life. Unfortunately, when she addresses her R.A. diagnosis and how it’s affected her physical and mental health, the passages feel far curter and emotionally removed.

Again, while I can commiserate with Nicholson saying she doesn’t want to be pitied, that her pride has kept her from asking for or accepting others’ help, and that she’s felt a deep resentment of the fact that her body derailed her dreams, my sincerest wish is that she works through those feelings on a deeper level and finds some peace in her life with a chronic illness. It will undoubtedly help both her creative nonfiction writing as well as her own mental health and wellbeing.

Otherwise, I found the book to be a beautiful tribute to an art form that clearly shaped Renée Nicholson’s life a great deal.

This review was originally published on Story Circle Network’s website here.

My Rating: 4/5

About the Author:

Renée K. Nicholson splits her artistic pursuits between writing and coaching dance. She is an associate professor and the Director of the Humanities Center and of the Programs for Multi- and Interdisciplinary Studies at West Virginia University, and has received several awards for public service, service to the arts, and excellence in advising. In addition to her memoir Fierce and Delicate, Ms. Nicholson has also written a book of poetry and co-edited an anthology about illness, disability, and medicine. Her writing has also appeared in countless periodicals and included in several anthologies.

To learn more about the author, you can visit her website here.

Fierce and Delicate is currently available on Amazon.

Disclaimer: I was sent a copy of Ms. Nicholson’s book, Fierce and Delicate, via Story Circle Network, in exchange for my honest review of the book.

Katherine Itacy is the author of Relentless: From National Champion to Physically Disabled Activist (July 28, 2020, E.L. Marker). After medically retiring from practicing law, Katherine wrote her memoir, Relentless (which is available now in paperback and e-book formats on Amazon), and started “The Phunky Diabetic Podcast”(which is available to stream on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, and YouTube). She is also on the board of directors for the Rhode Island ACLU, an advocate for the Rare Disease Legislative Advocates (RDLA), a patient advisor for the All of Us Patient & Family Advisory Council (PFAC), a volunteer for the Beyond Type One organization, and enjoys blogging about social justice and disability issues.


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