Study Guide

Dancing on the Edge Analysis

  • Tone

    Bleak, Mysterious, Redemptive

    You've probably figured this out by now, but most of Miracle's story isn't exactly warm and fuzzy. Probably the bleakest aspect of the novel is that it's about a girl who has to hurt herself in order to know she's alive. Miracle slams her body around during dance class so she can see the bruises on her body and know she's real, and the ultimate goal of setting herself on fire is, er, "to see if [she were] real" (28.23). While we don't get many graphic descriptions of Miracle's physical injuries, the portrayal of her emotional anguish draws us into her pain in a very personal way.

    There's also an element of mystery to the book. Throughout the story, the uncertainty builds in readers' minds as it becomes clear that there's more to events than what Miracle is being told. Most of this mysterious tone is created through the fights Miracle observes between members of her family, such as Gigi and Granddaddy Opal. For instance:

    Even though no one said Dane's name, I knew somehow that's what all the fighting was about, because every time they fought, Dane was there. (6.5)

    This brings a lot of questions to mind about why they're fighting about Dane and what went wrong in their marriage to begin with. But like Miracle, we never know, putting readers on the same shaky ground our main girl stands on.

    Ultimately, the uneasy tone the book creates is resolved in the redemption of Miracle's character. While the language throughout most of the book reflects her insecure and unsure state, this changes dramatically once she recalls the incident with the fire and chooses to stop believing in Gigi. The descriptions of her emotional state in particular reflect the freedom Miracle has won simply through their word choice. She says of being rid of Gigi:

    I felt so free and light […] I just knew if I stood up and did a leap I would leap clear over the tops of the buses and the tops of the trees and I wouldn't come down for a long, long time. (30.1)

    As Miracle finds her own magic, the tone of the book takes on a decidedly happier—one might even say lighter—tone.

  • Genre

    Coming of Age; Family Drama; Young Adult Literature

    Dancing on the Edge is a coming-of-age story of the most extreme kind because it involves a character not only emerging into greater self-awareness, but also letting go of beliefs and superstitions that immobilize and weaken her throughout her childhood. Throughout the book, Miracle gradually abandons the beliefs she's raised with—specifically, that her identity is found in her dead mother and her prodigy father, and that Gigi's rules about colors and numbers control the order of things. As she lets go, she also comes into her own.

    While the subject matter is often bleak, the story's ultimately happy ending gives us a hopeful outlook for this young character's future. "It felt so good to get away from Gigi," Miracle says, "from the hold she had on me. I felt so free and light" (30.1). Seeing Miracle go from a scared little girl huddled in her dad's old bathrobe to a young woman with the courage to stand up to Gigi definitely illustrates the transformation from childhood to emergent adulthood. Along these lines, the book is written toward a young adult audience, so it's also in the YA genre.

    While this book is definitely Miracle's story—we're in her head the whole time, after all—it's also a bit of a family drama because so much of the drama in Miracle's life stems from her family. Without her mother's death, her father's disappearance, her grandmother's controlling ways, her grandfather's love and weak health, and her aunt's transformation into a self-possessed mother figure, Miracle doesn't really have a story to tell. So as much as she takes center stage, with so much family in the wings, this book gives a solid nod to the family drama genre, too.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    For most of Dancing on the Edge, Miracle's in a pretty precarious situation. It's like she's living life on a balance beam—sometimes she's steady and stable, but other times she's not. And how could she be? She's a kid with a controlling grandma with a passion for the occult, who still has to go to public school and deal with the haters there. Plus, her mom's dead, her dad disappears, and no one will tell her the truth. The book's title echoes the uncertainty of Miracle's situation; it's a shout-out to her positioning in life on the edge of fantasy and reality, past and present.

    While the title definitely describes Miracle's position, though, it's also a metaphor for what it means to overcome obstacles and live fearlessly. Though doing so is super difficult—for Miracle, this ultimately means abandoning everything her family has taught her about herself, taking a leap, and trusting she can make up a dance of her own as she goes. At the end of the book, she says:

    I looked down at my outfit and told myself, I will never wear purple again […] Then I thought, No, I won't say never. I don't want any rules. (30.39)

    With this in mind, perhaps the title refers to Miracle's decision to stop teetering between people and their ideas for her, and instead jump into becoming her own self. Importantly, when she does, she refuses rules—which we can see as edges, or as lines drawn—and instead launches herself into a much more open existence.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    At the end of the book, Miracle's chilling at the bus station while waiting for Aunt Casey to pick her up when a nice lady walks up to her and offers her popcorn. Miracle accepts, because seriously, who turns down free popcorn? The act of kindness causes her to meditate a bit on how, contrary to her previous position, love actually might be real after all—in fact, it might be "the truest, realest thing I'll ever know" (30.43). And with that, Shmoopers, our journey with Miracle ends.

    Considering that Gigi just ditched her at the bus station after kidnapping her out of the hospital, you'd think Miracle might be pretty traumatized. Instead, her ordeal at the station turns out to not be so bad. The ticket lady lets her use the phone, she makes up with Aunt Casey, gets to talk to Granddaddy Opal, and now a stranger's giving her popcorn (and not in a creepy "stranger danger" kind of way).

    It's fitting that a book about a girl who doesn't believe love is real ends with her not only changing her tune, but being showered with kindness by people she doesn't even know. We've been through quite a ride with our girl Miracle, but the ending leaves us pretty sure that she's about to trust and love others in a way she's never been able to before. Yay.

  • Setting

    Alabama and Georgia, Late 1990s

    In a way, Han Nolan's decision to set Dancing on the Edge in the South places gives the novel characteristics of the Southern gothic tradition of literature. In a nutshell, Southern gothic literature focuses on the typical elements of spookiness, death, and things that go bump in the night that grace the pages of regular gothic stories, but with the twist of being set in the South.

    Given that Gigi contacts the dead and does all kinds of creepy rituals, not to mention the suspicious circumstances of Dane's disappearance, lots of stuff in this story adds up to being more than a little freaky. (If you're into it and want to check out some more Southern gothic madness, read Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find," which stars its own bizarre grandma as a primary character—you won't be sorry.)

    Another thing about the book's setting that's pretty interesting is the contrast between the places where Miracle lives. When she lives with Gigi in Alabama, the family primarily keeps to themselves in an isolated patch of property in the country:

    Back where we used to live we didn't have neighbors, just fields and ponds. It was more conducive to Dane's work. (3.35)

    More conducive to Dane's work, sure, but also more conducive to Gigi's control since there are no pesky neighbors to drop in or kids for Miracle to play with. By contrast, Granddaddy Opal's house is located in a more suburban area: "It was small and squat and sat crowded in a neighborhood of other small, squat houses "(3.35), Miracle describes. It's no wonder that this is the place where Miracle finally finds some community, thanks to her grandfather and dance—it's less isolated, and Miracle becomes less isolated here, too.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    Part 1

    "I'm Nobody! Who are you?"—Emily Dickinson

    Part 2

    "The Truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind."—Emily Dickinson

    When Juleen Presque shows up at Miracle's house to tell her that she knows the truth about her love spells (and Gigi), she doesn't crush Miracle's dreams and leave her with nothing—nope, she leaves behind a book of Emily Dickinson's poetry.

    "You read the poems," she tells Miracle. "They're true. They're the truest, realest thing I know. You need that, I think. You're like me. You need the truth" (16.87). While it takes some time after Miracle's burning incident to get the book back in her hands, Dickinson's work eventually gives her something powerful to relate to as she recovers.

    When read together, the two Dickinson quotes Nolan selects as epigraphs provide a panoramic picture of Miracle's journey throughout the story. In Part 1, she struggles with having a sense of her own identity, even having difficulty believing that she exists. She belongs to a family that, in trying to make something heroic of Sissy's suicide, has actually turned Miracle into "nobody."

    In Part 2, she "gradually" comes out of the stupor of Gigi's control and becomes aware of the truths of both her past and her identity. What she learns is so powerful and life-changing, though, that she can't just sit down with Dr. DeAngelis and Aunt Casey, learn some stuff about her mom, and be done with it. It's taken her a long time to become the way she is, and it will be a long process of recovery before she can have a normal life—in order to really find her way, she needs to take her time.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    Dancing on the Edge might look like a short, simple novel, but you know that saying about not judging a book by its cover. It might be relatively brief, but it's jam-packed with complex characters, subtext, emotion, and tons of other cool tools that take time and attention to analyze. Don't try to breeze through this one, because you'll miss a lot of really awesome stuff that adds depth and powerful meaning to the story. We recommend reading it twice—once to get a feel for the plot and characters, then a second time to dig into the symbolism, details, and themes.

  • Writing Style


    It's difficult to tell exactly what distance Miracle's speaking from, but she's definitely telling us this story from a position of looking back into her past. We can tell because of statements placed throughout the story that indicate that she's relating the story from memory. For example, when Part 2 of the book begins, Miracle says:

    I don't remember much about my stay in the hospital, not those early days, at least. I don't remember how I got there. (18.1)

    The fact that there are gaps in some parts of Miracle's memory demonstrates that she's telling us her story as she recalls it.

    We here at Shmoop have an additional theory, though—one that doesn't specifically play out to the end of the book, but is nonetheless possible. At one of their sessions, Dr. DeAngelis gives Miracle a notebook to write the story of her life in: "He wanted me to write down everything I could remember, everything important to me" (27.19), she says. And later, the book resurfaces when Dr. DeAngelis asks why she hasn't started writing in it yet: "What was holding me back, he wanted to know […] I was stronger now. I could face the truth, all of it" (28.9).

    So here's our theory: the book you hold in your hands is the notebook Dr. DeAngelis gave Miracle to write her autobiography in. Accepting the truth about her past has finally enabled her to face it and to begin writing her story. Pretty cool, huh? But if you disagree with us, feel free to argue your case—like we said, this is just our theory.

  • Dane's Candle Bottles

    When Miracle and her family go into the basement after receiving the message that Dane's disappeared from the Ouija board (or Gigi, depending on whose version you believe), they're confronted with a striking yet kind of creepy sight:

    We all stood together in a breathless clump, dazzled by the lights of Dane's candle bottles. They were everywhere—on his shelves, on his desk, lining the edges of the window casements, and covering the floor like a flaming blanket. (2.4)

    The candles are one of the peculiarities of Dane's character—as Miracle relates, he liked to put candles in his empty wine bottles and light them as a ceremony when his writing was going well.

    The candle bottles tell us a couple of things. First, Dane had some of the same mystic, magical view of the world as his mom. The ritual of lighting the bottles, Miracle says, was directly related in his mind to the destiny of his current project—"We'd light the candles and sit together on his bed and watch them, and Dane would describe to me the really big celebration we'd have when he sold his new book" (3.15). Okay, so dude's definitely superstitious.

    Additionally, there's a rumor that Dane's a bit of an alcoholic. And based on the number of bottles he has available to put candles in, well, it's probably safe to say that this rumor might have some truth to it. Despite these negative connotations, though, Miracle still sees the candle bottles as a symbol of magic and of her father's free-spirited, creative personality:

    Through the flames of the candle bottles, I could see the magic that shimmered in the room and spiced the air, the kind of magic that gets you believing in miracles. (3.15)

    You know what's actually magical to Miracle? Her only living parent, a.k.a. Dane. Where she sees magic shimmering, we can see love—heck, when she starts her fake love spell business, she even asks for candle bottles as payment, literally asking to be paid in objects that remind her of her dad. The candle bottles, then, are a powerful reminder of her father and the magic she associates with him.

  • Dane's Bathrobe

    We've all had comfort objects—no shame in the security blankie game—and, if you're like us, then whatever you found most precious probably got pretty freaking dirty and worn out. Well, until your mom came along and forced it into the wash, anyway.

    But what happens when you're older, and your comfort object is a piece of clothing that you take to wearing in very public situations where its presence is socially unacceptable? That's what Miracle has to figure out when she starts wearing her dad's ratty bathrobe everywhere she goes. And we do mean everywhere.

    At first, after he disappears, Dane's robe is "a soft coat of armor protecting me, wrapping me in its warm smells of cigarettes, wine, and musty old books—Dane's smell" (2.61). After two years of constantly wearing it, though, "It had become faded and torn […] and I had spilled all kinds of food on it—grape juice, spaghetti sauce, and chocolate—and it smelled of incense" (6.37). Kids tease Miracle about it constantly, saying that they know she doesn't have any clothes on under it.

    You'd think that the teasing, let alone the smell, would be enough to convince her to stop wearing the robe, but that's not the case. For Miracle, the robe gives her an identity that she doesn't have without Dane present in her life: "Anytime I removed it, I felt certain that I had become invisible, as if the robe gave my body its shape and substance. Without it I was nothing at all" (7.4). In other words, she doesn't know who she is without her dad, so to hold herself together, she wears his ratty old robe.

    Importantly, the robe—like the knowledge of Dane's disappearance and her own lack of identity—weighs Miracle down, making it hard to dance, ride her bike, or do anything that will help her become her own person. She even finds it after the tornado and puts it on, even though it's waterlogged and muddy.

    The robe, therefore, is a symbol of Miracle's need to cling to other people to form her identity, especially her dad. It isn't until her treatment at The Cedars and her time with Dr. DeAngelis that she's able to discover that she has a personality separate from her family that makes her unique on her own. So long as she's covered in the robe, we know she's covering herself up with the identities of others.

  • The Wig Heads

    It's bad enough having to move in with Aunt Casey and Uncle Toole, but having to sleep in the room where Casey keeps all her faceless wig model heads just makes the situation way worse for Miracle. Like, thanks but no thanks for the creepy, faceless company.

    During her time living with Aunt Casey before her hospital stay, Miracle makes a habit of talking to the heads, but the conversations aren't exactly encouraging. In her mind, the heads are really a bunch of plastic bullies, as she personifies the heads by turning them into her worst critics. At one point, they taunt her for her love magician act at school:

    They were waiting for me, lined up on the shelf, laughing their nasty laugh. "What do you know about love?" (15.2)

    We all know plastic wig stand things can't actually laugh, but in Miracle's mind, the wig heads represent all the discouraging forces and thoughts in her life that keep her from seeing herself as a real, living person. And since they're basically blank slates, there's really nothing stopping her from projecting all her human anxieties onto their empty and waiting human forms. In these anxieties, then, we get glimpses of Miracle's worst suspicions about herself.

    Need more evidence? Check out the conversation Miracle has with Dr. DeAngelis about the wig heads. She relates a number of characteristics of the wig heads that make them sound pretty sinister—she says they "watched me" (24.46), "They didn't have any faces" (24.51), and "They were dead" (24.73). Yikes. Miracle's view of a bunch of seemingly innocent plastic heads gives us a startling look at how she really sees herself: as faceless, dead, and constantly scrutinized and criticized by people around her. No wonder staying in that room gives Miracle the willies.

  • Colors

    There's a lot about Gigi that's just plain freaky—her makeup and false eyelashes, her ability to manipulate others, the fact that she may or may not be behind her son's disappearance—but one of the most memorable elements of her freakiness is her obsession with, and superstitions regarding, colors. This book is packed with colors that relate to specific ideas—"green for seeking knowledge of the great beyond" (5.6), "pink for femininity" (4.69), and black, the color of "evil, darkness, death" (24.26).

    While these colors may represent these concepts, though, all colors in the book represent one theme: Gigi's control of Miracle. Growing up with her crazy grandma literally indoctrinates Miracle into the concept of colors being inherently bad and good. This is especially apparent when Gigi starts forcing her to wear purple—"the most spiritual color" (3.31)—as a way of balancing out her aura.

    Miracle, unfortunately, comes to believe this idea in an obsessive, unhealthy way: "Purple was spiritual," she explains, "purple was power. Purple protected me" (13.51). The reality, though, as Aunt Casey observes, is that purple is actually making her more depressed. Oops.

    The really scary part is that even after Miracle moves to Aunt Casey's, she can't let go of the color superstitions. When she goes to Dr. DeAngelis's office, for example, she refuses to sit on the couch with Aunt Casey because she can't tell what color it is. "I want one I know the meaning of, so I know what I'm sitting on" (24.21), she says. Instead of being something beautiful or a source of power, then, colors become a source of fear for Miracle.

    Through the healing she undergoes at the hospital, along with her realization that Gigi's magic isn't real, Miracle's able to set herself free from the mental control she's grown up under. "When it comes to numbers and colors, there will be no rules," she tells herself. "I'll wear orange and red and pink and sit on that strange blue-black-green couch in Dr. DeAngelis's office" (30.39). Letting go of the power she believes colors to possess, then, represents stepping out from under Gigi's control, too, and taking charge of her own destiny. You go, girl.

  • Etain

    One of the greatest gifts Granddaddy Opal gives Miracle is her bicycle, which she names Etain, after a character in an Irish legend. His approach to giving a bicycle as a gift, though, is a bit different from how society typically approaches it: Granddaddy Opal's a firm believer in getting old bikes and fixing them up like new. As he explains to Miracle:

    "You fix it up, paint, and then it's yours […] You take care of it, grease it up good every now and then, give it a name, and you ride it everywhere. You and that bicycle become best friends. It's a real special relationship." (6.7)

    It's all of this for Miracle, but it's also something more: independence. Miracle's pretty much grown up under Gigi's thumb, surrounded by rules about what colors to wear and what numbers to avoid—having her own bike is one of the first experiences she ever has with being able to care for something on her own and travel places by herself. It's also an activity that requires her to take off Dane's bathrobe. While she frequently wears the sash tied around her waist, she still has to rid herself of the robe's bulk in order to enjoy the bike. (For more on the robe, be sure to check out its page elsewhere in this section.)

    The story behind the bike's name is also pretty interesting. According to the story of Etain, Etain was a beautiful woman who was turned into a butterfly by another lady who was jealous of her, then blown away from home in a magic storm. Etain manages to find happiness in a new location, even as a butterfly, but this other woman can't stand the idea of her being content, so she sends another storm and blows her somewhere else. She even makes another lady drink the butterfly, and that woman eventually gives birth to Etain, returning her to human form (6.34).

    Hold on a minute. This is a really weird story, right? But it bears a strong resemblance to Miracle's situation if we think about it: She's transformed into something inhuman through Gigi's superstitions and obsession with her mom's death, and is blown from place to place by literal and figurative storms. Miracle even gives a reference at the end of the book to feeling reborn:

    I had never really noticed people before, and I wondered what it meant, to see them now, as if they were newly born upon this earth, and I, too, newly born, alive, truly alive. (30.1)

    As a result of all of this, Miracle, just like Etain, becomes human again as she accepts the truth about her mother's death and her family. Could it also be that Gigi is in some way jealous of Miracle, hence the limitations she places on her? Not all of this analogy is clear-cut, but it definitely makes sense. And one thing's for certain: Etain the bicycle gives Miracle an important taste of freedom.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central)—Miracle McCloy

    Dancing on the Edge is the kind of transformational story that demands that its protagonist tell her own story. If the novel were told using a third-person narrator, we'd still get all the goodies of seeing Miracle adapt as she moves away from her dysfunctional past. But there would be one major ingredient missing: Miracle's own self-reflection and analysis of how she's changed.

    This is particularly true at the end of the book when the truth about Gigi and her family crystallizes and Miracle begins to see things as they really are. She says:

    My own feelings were too new, too fresh […] Thoughts and memories were slamming around inside my head, crashing into one another, exploding, breaking wide open. (29.10)

    The emotional intensity of her new realizations couldn't be captured in as vivid detail with an objective or even omniscient narrator as it is here. In order for us to bond with Miracle and experience genuine concern for her, we have to get inside her head.

    This doesn't mean that spending so much quality time with Miracle's brain is entirely smooth-sailing. Because the story is told from the point of view of a character who is mentally unstable, abused, and neglected, there are a lot of places where we lack the information to totally know what's going on.

    At the beginning, for instance, some people showed up at Gigi's house in the middle of the night with a torch and "sprinkled something along the edge of our lawn" (2.39). It's hard to understand the situation because Miracle herself isn't aware of the specifics. Nonetheless, we can fill in the gaps and figure out that the suspicious characters are most likely vigilante townsfolk who want to burn down Gigi's house due to her black magic and the questionable nature of Dane's disappearance.

    • Plot Analysis


      I'm Melting 

      Oh, what a world, what a world… Because her mother's dead, when Miracle's father vanishes into thin air, our main girl isn't exactly left in the greatest family situation. She's alone with her grandmother, Gigi, who's obsessed with all things occult, and they find themselves no longer welcome in town. This sends the ladies packing to Miracle's grandfather's house, but since he also happens to be Gigi's ex-husband, they definitely aren't out of hot water yet.

      At least Miracle and Granddaddy Opal form a good relationship—he even defies Gigi's order that Miracle not be allowed to take dance lessons. But with secrets and exes living together, plus both of Miracle's parents gone, the stage is definitely set for some serious drama to unfold.

      Rising Action

      It's a Twister

      When Granddaddy Opal's house is destroyed in a tornado (on Miracle's birthday, no less), Miracle's world is turned upside-down again. She's sent to live with Aunt Casey and Uncle Toole, who aren't exactly the most involved foster parents ever. Left mostly to her own devices, Miracle's confusion over her identity in the wake of her dad's disappearance only gets worse, and eventually leads to her setting herself on fire. Yikes—something has definitely got to give for this kid.


      These Things Must Be Done Delicately… 

      Recovering in the hospital after setting herself on fire, Miracle comes face to face with the truth about her mother's accident (spoiler alert: not an accident) and must finally choose between continuing to hide from the truth by living in the bubble of lies her family has told her, or breaking free. Despite the painful reality that her mother committed suicide, Miracle chooses to walk through the darkness in order to accept and learn to live with the truth. She realizes this is the only way to ever live in the light.

      Falling Action

      Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain 

      In one last attempt to regain control over her granddaughter, Gigi kidnaps Miracle from the hospital and tries to drive her back to Tennessee so she can be a guinea pig for her new healing powers. On the way, though, Miracle comes to believe once and for all that Gigi is a fake and that she needs the help of the hospital and Aunt Casey in order to truly recover. Firm in her newfound beliefs, Miracle stands up to her grandmother, insisting she take her back to The Cedars.


      There's No Place Like Home 

      Gigi dumps Miracle off at a bus station without so much as a cent to get herself anywhere, and Miracle calls Aunt Casey to come pick her up. While waiting for Casey, she begins to reconsider her belief that love doesn't exist and starts actually looking forward to her new life with Casey and Granddaddy Opal, as well as continuing to heal. She hasn't reached happiness yet, but as the story ends, it's clear that Miracle is well on her way.