Take the Lead, by Alexis Daria

>> Saturday, September 22, 2018

TITLE: Take the Lead
AUTHOR: Alexis Daria

COPYRIGHT: 2017
PAGES: 332
PUBLISHER: Swerve

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: #1 in the Dance-Off series

Gina Morales wants to win. It’s her fifth season on The Dance Off, a top-rated network TV celebrity dance competition, and she’s never even made it to the finals. When she meets her latest partner, she sees her chance. He's handsome, rippling with muscles, and he stars on the popular Alaskan wilderness reality show Living Wild. With his sexy physique and name recognition, she thinks he’s her ticket to the finals—until she realizes they’re being set up.

Stone Nielson hates Los Angeles, he hates reality TV, and he hates that fact that he had to join the cast of the The Dance Off because of family obligations. He can’t wait to get back to Alaska, but he also can’t deny his growing attraction to his bubbly Puerto Rican dance partner. Neither of them are looking for romantic entanglements, and Stone can’t risk revealing his secrets, but as they heat up the dance floor, it’s only a matter of time until he feels an overwhelming urge to take the lead.

When the tabloids catch on to their developing romance, the spotlight threatens to ruin not just their relationship, but their careers and their shot at the trophy. Gina and Stone will have to decide if their priorities lie with fame, fortune, or the chance at a future together.
Gina Morales is a professional dancer and one of the pros in a TV dancing contest/reality show (think Dancing With the Stars or Strictly). She's done ok in her first couple of years, but this year she's determined to work hard and get onto the finals (at least). She'll do it whoever her celebrity partner is, but she's been hoping for a good one... maybe an Olympian? Someone used to training hard and with good coordination, anyway.

She doesn't quite get an Olympian in the modern sense of the word, but the contestant she gets looks like a literal ancient one. Stone Nielsen is a mountain of sculpted muscle. He's the star of a reality show himself, one focusing on his family and their life off the grid in Alaska. Stone's not keen on being on a dancing competition, but there's certain medical bills to pay, and he can't say no to his family.

There's quite an instant attraction between Gina and Stone, but as they spend intense hours together training, she's determined to keep things professional, even though the show producers are clearly angling for a 'showmance' between them. She will absolutely not be portrayed as a stereotypical promiscuous, sexualised Latina. But as she and Stone start getting to know and actually care for each other, it's hard.

There were some really good and interesting things here, enough that I'll probably read Daria again, but on the whole this felt insubstantial, and like an author who's still learning about how to do characterisation really well.

This was visible mostly in Stone, who felt like quite a thin character, with certain key things in his background lacking convincing motivation. And this meant that he felt a bit spineless, to be honest. He is living his life being part of a reality TV show 24/7, and one that seems to be based on lies. The Nielsons are supposed to have lived all their lives off-the-grid and grown up like that, but in reality their lives seem to have been a lot less unusual. Stone doesn't like it, but he feels pressured by his family to be part of the whole thing. Why? We don't know. He loves his family and can't say no to them, that's all we get. Then they pressure him to go on yet another reality show, this Dance-Off. One where things are going to be even more manipulated by producers. If he hated being on his family reality show, this is clearly going to be a nightmare. It really seems a lot to ask of someone, and we never understand why he doesn't push back. There's some hand-waving about having to pay medical bills for his mother's hip replacement, but that seems preposterous. They're stars in a reality show that seems quite successful (enough to warrant one of the brothers going on Dance-Off), and yet the the producers have not arranged for health insurance? Seriously?

Gina felt like a much more well-rounded, real character. I understood her better. She's a dancer, she wants to have a successful, lasting career. Being on a programme like Dance-Off makes sense. She doesn't love the producer manipulation (and seriously, that producer, Donna, was such a cartoonishly evil character!), but it's part of the deal, and she does like the fame aspect of things. She has fun with the press junkets and so on. That's fine. Personally, it would be my worst nightmare, but different strokes and all that.

Her desire not to be made into yet another example of the oversexualised, "fiery" Latina by the show's producers also really resonated with me. I grew up in Uruguay, where that stereotype is just not a thing. All the people around me growing up were Latin American (whether white, brown or black), so we didn't have that outsider generalised view of what "Latinxs" are supposed to be like. If anything, our own view of ourselves as Uruguayans is that we're melancholy and grey, far from the fiery and passionate idea outsiders seem to have of all Latinxs. And then I moved to Europe, and it was a bit of a shock to see that I was often assumed to be impulsive and hot-blooded, when I'm actually much more on the cold and analytical end of the spectrum. It hasn't been a huge problem, just something that's nagged at me, but it made Gina's motivations for absolutely and resolutely not wanting to be seen as a dancer who would sleep with her partner completely understandable.

But even with her there are what seem to be plot-driven inconsistencies. Like her instant grabbiness with Stone, even while she was talking sense about how it was best to keep things professional (if friendly) with him. Why the hell is she suddenly holding hands with him, going "lie back, I've been dying to play with your hair" and cuddling next to him when they take a nap in the park? There's some talk later on about it being important for the dance chemistry that they're comfortable with touching each other's bodies, but at that point it's all 'Professional, professional, professional, "I'm gonna play with your hair"'. She's basically giving them man super mixed messages, and indeed, he's pretty confused.

I also found it quite disturbing that all the men are all portrayed as really nice and supportive to each other, while the only "villains" are two women. And their villainy is of the stereotypical misogynistic kind: they're manipulative and bitchy and vindictive. That kind of characterisation got old several years ago. Also, one of them sexually harasses Stone in what I thought was quite a severe way. If it had been a man doing that to a woman, it would have been taken a lot more seriously. Here it's just ignored by everyone, including Stone. This jarred.

The bits about the actual dancing competition could also have been done a lot better. Well, we do get quite a bit about the rehearsals, but once we get to the TV shows, it's basically "and then they danced and got X points". Only maybe once we get to hear the judges. That seemed like a bit of a waste, as this could have provided quite good tension (as well as being fun).

Finally (appropriately), the ending (spoilerish, so beware if you decide to read the next paragraph). Very mixed feelings about it. Daria had been telling us all along how difficult it would be to have a relationship work, since they each want such different things. Stone loves Alaska and living in uncrowded Nature, while Gina is a woman who thrives on the energy of the city, and the career she is so passionate about demands she be there. To be honest, I wasn't sure they should be together. But suddenly Stone (thin character that he is) seems to decide he's not that determined to live permanently in Alaska after all, cue HEA. Huh. On one hand, nice not to have the heroine give up her dreams, but on the other, it felt like a cop-out to wave a magic wand and say that actually, neither has Stone and he's now happy living in big cities and going to Alaska in off-season times.

The other good thing about the ending was that Daria made me aware of some unexpected internalised sexism within myself. So, Stone, who has an engineering degree and lots of experience working on construction projects, ends up giving it up and taking up a career of being a catwalk model instead, which allows he and Gina to better mesh their lives. I had quite a negative reaction to that, and on interrogating it, turns out I felt it was 'unmanly' in some way. I tried to tell myself at first that it was about the waste of a good brain, blah, blah, blah, but really, it was about the manliness. Silly, but there we go. A book that makes you get to know yourself better is always a worth read, IMO.

It feels like I've mostly nitpicked in this review, but on the whole, I had a good time reading it. It flowed well and kept me engaged. Hopefully the next will have improved characterisation and work for me even better.

MY GRADE: This was a B- for me.

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