Study Guide

Dancing on the Edge Themes

  • Abandonment

    If there's one thing we know about young adult fiction, it's that the genre is packed full of abandoned kids—Oliver Twist, Mary Lennox, and Alaska Young should be rolling out the welcome mat as Miracle joins their legion of Kids Who Got a Bad Deal. Because while Miracle may have a legal guardian of some kind for the entirety of Dancing on the Edge, the adults in her life haven't exactly done an awesome job of raising her. Fortunately, struggling through life on her own only adds a richer layer to her transformation as a character.

    Questions About Abandonment

    1. What needs is Miracle been deprived of? How has the absence of each made her life more difficult?
    2. How does being a neglected child make Miracle stronger? Give specific examples, please.
    3. How does Miracle's sense of self shift after being in The Cedars? What factors contribute to this?
    4. How do Gigi's and Aunt Casey's strategies in managing Miracle create further problems for her?

    Chew on This

    Being in The Cedars at age thirteen is the first experience Miracle ever has with structure, and as much as kids may say they hate it, they really thrive when there are some clear boundaries.

    Miracle was abandoned the moment her family agreed not to tell her the truth about her mother's death.

  • Family

    No family is without its own special brand of dysfunction, but in Dancing on the Edge, the McCloys are a strange group of characters with serious denial problems. They rewrite their family history, perpetually lie, move back in with divorced spouses, stay in bad relationships, and struggle to communicate on any level. As a result, Miracle's life is in a near-constant state of upheaval.

    That said, while the bulk of her family life isn't exactly positive, Miracle's interactions with Granddaddy Opal provide rare stable ground, while Aunt Casey eventually learns to overcome the family's issues and put the past in its proper place. In other words, even with this chaotic lot, family's a mixed bag.

    Questions About Family

    1. What do we know about Dane's relationship with his parents? How does it shape Miracle's situation?
    2. What lessons does Miracle learn from Granddaddy Opal? How is she able to apply them in her life after she leaves his house? Give examples from the text.
    3. How does Aunt Casey's attitude toward her family's issues change once she begins taking psychology classes? Be specific, please.
    4. How does Miracle's idea of family change from the beginning of the story to the end?

    Chew on This

    The first people who treat Miracle with the respect we expect to see shown by family aren't family members at all—they're Juleen and Dr. DeAngelis.

    Before she can help the rest of her family, Aunt Casey has to come to terms with her role in Sissy's death and what that means for Miracle.

  • Lies and Deceit

    In Dancing on the Edge, Miracle's entire life is based on a lie. Rather than acknowledge the truth of Sissy's tragic death, her family instead raises her to believe that her birth really was a grand and glorious miracle. The thing about lies, though, is that they only cover stuff up, not eliminate it completely. As a result, a huge part of Miracle's journey is not only learning the truth about the accident, but also accepting what really happened and rejecting the damaging stories she's been told.

    Of course, this also means the family has to get over their half-truths and invented stories, something that—for Gigi in particular—is easier said than done.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. We know the lies Gigi tells Miracle are damaging, but how do they specifically create challenges in Miracle's relationships and belief in herself?
    2. How does Miracle imitate Gigi's and Casey's behavior in the ways she responds to others? Give examples, please.
    3. How does Juleen enlighten Miracle to the truth she can't acknowledge?
    4. How do Miracle's relatives unknowingly reveal the truth about her mother? How does she know this?

    Chew on This

    Granddaddy Opal may claim to be different from Gigi, but he buys into the McCloy family's culture of lies as well.

    Miracle's love spell lie is a way of seeking attention from others that she isn't receiving from her family.

  • Identity

    It's pretty normal for teens to ask a lot of questions about who they are, where they are going, and where they belong. What's definitely not normal, though, is for them to believe that they don't even exist. Nonetheless, this is where we find Miracle for much of her journey in Dancing on the Edge—terrified that due to the circumstances of her birth and how people react to her, she's actually nobody.

    While it may take some terrifying and disturbing circumstances to teach her the truth, Miracle is eventually able to come to terms with her past and allow her individual personality, not the events of her birth, to define her. Yay—way to do you, girl.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Why does Miracle believe she isn't real? What evidence does she have for this? How do her family members reinforce her belief that she isn't real?
    2. How does Miracle use pain as a method of asserting her identity? Pick two instances and compare and contrast them.
    3. What about Emily Dickinson's poetry does Miracle so strongly relate to? For a jump start, check out our "What's Up With the Epigraph" section.

    Chew on This

    In trying to self-destruct by setting herself on fire, Miracle realizes for the first time that she is real.

    It is impossible for Miracle to begin figuring out who she is until everyone in her life stops lying to her—any sense of identity she forms before this is based on lies.

  • Memory and the Past

    If there's one thing the McCloy family totally rocks at in Dancing on the Edge, it's rewriting history. Think about it: They basically reinvent the entire story of their past so that they don't have to see Miracle as the product of a huge tragedy. They claim they're doing this for her, but they're so filled with raw, unprocessed grief and anger that they're really doing it mostly for themselves, reshaping Miracle's past so they don't have to look at their own mistakes.

    Memory may be the enemy for Miracle, but with help and support, she's able to reclaim her own past and begin to shape her future. It's not easy, but it definitely seems to be worth it.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. What are Granddaddy Opal's and Gigi's attitudes toward Dane? What does this reveal about their relationship with each other? How about with themselves?
    2. How, specifically, is the family's rewriting of the past detrimental to Miracle?
    3. How does Miracle's desire to be a dancer connect with the past her family wants to keep from her?
    4. Why does Miracle block out the realization that Gigi is a fake? Why might this thought be traumatic for her?

    Chew on This

    The past may be messy, but Miracle has no future for herself until she actually understands where she comes from.

    Granddaddy Opal shows kindness toward Miracle in an effort to keep Gigi from repeating the past.

  • Religion

    You better believe religion is going to play a major role in a story where a teenage girl is basically enslaved to her grandma's black magic. We Shmoopers aren't here to criticize anyone's specific religious views, but we do know this: Religion can do a lot of damage when it's used to control others. And in Dancing on the Edge, this is exactly what Gigi strives to accomplish through the occult—if people believe in her powers, she runs the show. Miracle in particular ends up super confused, and sorting through Gigi's beliefs and bad information is key to coming into her own.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Do you think Gigi actually believes the things she tells Miracle about the spirit world, or is she just trying to reinforce them for herself? Use the text to support your claim.
    2. How do Gigi's religious views take power away from Miracle? Give examples, please.
    3. How do Emmaline's spiritual beliefs conflict with Gigi's and Eugene's?
    4. What about Gigi's views on Dane and Sissy leaves Miracle confused?

    Chew on This

    Gigi uses religion to keep the rest of the family in line with her story about Miracle's birth.

    Gigi's religious rituals and beliefs keep Miracle from investigating the truth about the world around her.

  • Transformation

    Dancing on the Edge might be a bleak story, but take comfort in the fact that it's ultimately a story about change. While accompanying Miracle on her journey is often disturbing, seeing her transform from a shell of a girl into a confident young woman who is freed from the lies of her past makes us more than a little proud of her. She might go through some tough times to get there, but Miracle's story shows us that it's possible for even the most damaged individuals to rise out of the ashes of their suffering and become something new. In other words, this book is hopeful… you just have to be patient.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. In what specific ways does Miracle change throughout the story? What important moments in the book influence these changes? Are there ways in which she stays the same?
    2. How does Miracle's relationship with Granddaddy Opal change the environment at his house?
    3. Besides Miracle, what other characters undergo a transformation in the book? No need to only consider transformations as positive…
    4. Review the story of Etain, the namesake for Miracle's bicycle (6.34). How does this story reflect Miracle's journey throughout the story? For help getting started, hop on over to the "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section.

    Chew on This

    While Miracle's incident with the candle bottles is painful, it's also essential for getting her to recognize her problems and giving her a desire to change.

    All of the bad characters—the characters who work against the happiness and wellbeing of others—fail to change.

  • Art and Culture

    In Dancing on the Edge, dance isn't just a casual activity or a hobby for Miracle, it's what really brings meaning to her life. This meaning, though, changes throughout the book. At first, Miracle seems dedicated to dance because having a special talent might somehow bring Dane back, but gradually, it becomes a way for her to assert her identity and recover from her past. We see the healing qualities of art in general, too, including music helping people through hard times and the emotional resonance of poetry. In a dark story, then, art is a constant bright spot.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Why don't Aunt Casey and Gigi want Miracle to dance? What exactly are they afraid of?
    2. How do her secret dance lessons give Miracle relief from her daily life? Do they add tension in any way? How does this fit with the relief?
    3. What does art eventually teach Miracle about what it means to be real?
    4. If you were going to make a playlist for Miracle's iPod, what songs would you put on it, and why?

    Chew on This

    The arts play an essential role in helping Miracle form the identity she didn't believe she had.

    As much as the arts help Miracle find herself, they also help her form meaningful connections to other people—connections that aren't based on fear.

  • Versions of Reality

    Denial: It ain't just a river in Egypt. It's a skill for avoiding the painful realities of life, and in Dancing on the Edge, the McCloy family is dangerously good at. These people exercise denial to the point where it borders on delusion—rather than look at what's real and plausible, they instead build alternate realities to keep from dealing with guilt and grief and loss. The problem with having different versions of reality, though, is that it prevents you from dealing directly with life, and this causes serious issues for Miracle and Gigi.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. Does Miracle really believe in Gigi's fantasy world, or is there a part of her that always hasn't? Use examples from the book to support your answer.
    2. Why does Miracle repeatedly create alternate realities to explain what happens to Dane? And speaking of Dane, what happens to him?
    3. What role does Juleen play in Miracle's realization that Gigi's world isn't what it seems to be?
    4. Why is it so difficult for Gigi to accept a realistic explanation for Dane leaving?

    Chew on This

    Gigi teaches Miracle to create fantasy scenarios as a way to hide from painful emotions and truths.

    Miracle sets herself on fire partially because she can't handle the full weight of the truth Juleen shares with her—as her understanding of her life metaphorically goes up in flames, Miracle literally does the same.

  • Love

    Before you start expecting all kinds of mushy, romantic stuff from this theme, we should take a minute to say that Dancing on the Edge isn't about that kind of love. Instead, it focuses on the ways humans show compassion toward each other, as well as how supportive relationships can heal people who have been through a lot of pain. For Miracle, this means that her relationships with Granddaddy Opal and Aunt Casey (once she gets with the program, at least), and also Dr. DeAngelis and the staff at The Cedars, begin to rebuild her sense of self and security. Go team.

    Questions About Love

    1. Why does Miracle believe love isn't real? What's the root of this belief?
    2. Does Gigi really love Miracle? Why or why not? Use examples to support your argument.
    3. How does Dr. DeAngelis teach Miracle about love?
    4. How does Miracle ultimately use her relationship with dance to understand love? Read up on dance elsewhere in this section to jumpstart your thinking.

    Chew on This

    Miracle has to love herself before she can love others, and this means she has to figure out who the heck she is before any real healing can begin.

    Gigi loves herself first and foremost, which means she can't help but hurt others.