Evie Thomas doesn’t believe in love anymore. Especially after the strangest thing occurs one otherwise ordinary afternoon: She witnesses a couple kiss and is overcome with a vision of how their romance began . . . and how it will end. After all, even the greatest love stories end with a broken heart, eventually.
As Evie tries to understand why this is happening, she finds herself at La Brea Dance Studio, learning to waltz, fox-trot, and tango with a boy named X. X is everything that Evie is not: adventurous, passionate, daring. His philosophy is to say yes to everything–including entering a ballroom dance competition with a girl he’s only just met.
Falling for X is definitely not what Evie had in mind. If her visions of heartbreak have taught her anything, it’s that no one escapes love unscathed. But as she and X dance around and toward each other, Evie is forced to question all she thought she knew about life and love. In the end, is love worth the risk?
I’m going to be honest here. I was on a time crunch with multiple writing deadlines, and needed to choose a book I could finish quickly, so I turned to a tried and true author whose books I have previously flown through: Nicola Yoon. Her newest release, Instructions for Dancing, seemed like the perfect candidate for all of my requirements, but I did not see the humongous wave of feelings coming that was about to steamroll me within these 300 (or so) pages.
I was looking for a lighthearted, quick contemporary novel about dance, and while this was definitely that in part, it was so much more. It had me existentially questioning the value of my relationships and sobbing at 2am, which, as both a Pisces and an Enneagram type 4, is not uncommon, but I promise that readers with other charts and Enneagram types will likely feel similarly overcome with emotion.
Our protagonist, Evie Thomas, is a Black high school senior, who is reeling in the aftermath of her parents’ divorce following her father’s infidelity. She is rife with cynicism for the longevity of romantic relationships, and has big plans to desert her much-loved romance novels at a local little library. While on this donation trip, she meets a mysterious, magical woman who gives her the ability to have visions about the course of the relationships of couples that she sees and knows. Evie feels disheartened when she receives confirmation that many relationships end. This fabulist element seems like it is entirely set up for convenience, but it really does work so well for its purpose in the context of the plot.
Not only does the woman grant her foresight, she also directs her to go to La Brea Dance, which is a small ballroom dance studio owned by Archibald and Maggie Johnson, a married Black couple. Fifi, a dance instructor, also works there, and she introduces Evie to Xavier, or X, who is a charismatic and incredibly attractive Black teenage boy. Fifi enters them in an amateur dance competition in what seems like a whirlwind. I almost felt breathless reading this part, which I thought was great use of pacing to emulate the lightspeed at which things were moving, and made the convenient nature and fabulist elements easier to process.
It was amazing to see the healing power of dance through Fifi’s lessons leading up to the competition. Dance is equal parts technique and emotion, and it would not be what it is as an art form without both. Evie learned to trust her natural instincts, and deepen her connection and trust with X, and as a dancer previously, I understand that dance doesn’t come across as really being magical without believing in what you’re doing.
Through dance and her relationship with X, the development of Evie’s trust in her feelings and instincts grew so much from the beginning of her story when she was donating her books, to where she ended up. She realizes that love is sometimes worth it and relationships are valuable even if they end, whether amicably or otherwise. Again, as a Pisces and Enneagram type 4, I am an expert in both romanticizing and holding grudges, which is a lethal combination, and I found myself reflecting on resentment which too often crops up when relationships have ended in my own life, rather than appreciating the gravity of the rest of the relationship. There is, however, a difference between this and only focusing on the good things and ignoring the red flags, because sometimes relationships end on good terms and still deemed not valuable because they ended anyways.
Another aspect I enjoyed was that X was a musician in a rock band, and reading about his shows and songwriting process. Nicola Yoon addressed racism in rock music briefly yet succinctly: “it’s weird for you seeing three Black guys up here playing rock and roll. But don’t forget, Black people invented rock and roll”.
Another important relationship is Evie’s relationship with her older sister Danica. She explains that they don’t have an inseparable sister bond, but they don’t have a strained relationship either. Some residual points of tension in their parents’ relationship cause discord between Evie and Danica, and we can see how the anxiety from secrets kept within a family can be passed down. I also adored the friendship dynamic within Evie’s core group of friends: Martin, Cassidy and Sophie. They are all in their senior year, and some students are trying to savor those last moments with their closest friends, while others are trying to revisit past friendships and mend broken bridges.
Ultimately, Instructions for Dancing brings the same compelling readability as Nicola Yoon’s previous novels, in its use of inserting extremely short chapters amidst the longer ones. However, the overall tone is more mature which provides more emotional depth. If you liked her other books, this one will definitely be a winner.
MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
If you enjoyed Nicola Yoon’s previous books, I can guarantee you will adore Instructions for Dancing. I was expecting a jovial, humorous jaunt through a dance competition, and while there was a good portion that took on that tone, there were so many layers that the book was the most perfect combination of relatable and heartbreakingly captivating.
“Mom says just because a thing ends doesn’t make the thing any less real. Just because everything is different now doesn’t mean we didn’t love each other once. Maybe we will again.”
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: One afternoon Evie Thomas, reeling from her parents’ divorce, magically gains the ability to the course of people’s relationships and also somehow ends up at a dance studio, and enters a dance competition with a VERY cute boy. (Trust me, it is extremely hard to explain, but oh so worth it.)
Genre: YA Contemporary
Trigger/content warning: Death, grief, cheating