ALL PAGE REFERENCES REFER TO THE SECOND EDITION OF 'IN AND OUT OF STEP'
Belonging is a deep genetic drive. We are herd creatures first and foremost. You can see this in even the smallest of children who may not play together but like to play near each other.
The decision to leave the familiar circle of family and friends and move to a new area where you don't have any connections or any knowledge of the area rates high on the stress and isolation. The word bereft comes to mind for a person in such a situation. Bereft has connotations not just of a gnawing sense of loss but of an emptiness tinged with resignation to the new circumstance. That sense lingers on the edge of consciousness even when you're having a good time in your new landscape.
The theme of Belonging in 'In and Out of Step' is explored through characterisation, place context, the juxtaposition of perspectives and experiences, ritual, language, and through the extended metaphor of dance.
Focus: central character or protagonist
Techniques: characterisation, choice and use of context (place and situation), plot action, language, dialogue, use of flashback sequences, imagery, symbolism, the use of parallels and contrasts.
Cassie Sleight, a championship dancer, in seeking a seachange at the start of her teaching career, chose exile from her familiar circle of family, friends, and the dance world for compelling, personal reasons. Finding herself in an impossible situation, she opted to remove herself from the pain of it. Her pain stemmed from a change in relationship dynamics. She had found herself ousted from what had previously been a close relationship between three friends, one of whom she had considered as her soul mate (affinity). Feeling alienated and bereft, she left.
This is shown in the text by the use of contrasting characterisation and the back-stories (contextual information) of Cassie Sleight, Jake Dominguez, and Melissa Pratt. That characterisation and those back-stories show how personal values and expectations can cause conflict and result in the breakdown of relationships and alienation.
All three characters grew up in patriarchal homes - male dominated with women in traditional subservient roles. Cassie rejected the adult male and female role and relationship models of her parents' generation. She had seen the pain and disempowerment the women in that world experienced.
As children, Cassie had an affinity with Jake Dominguez and grew up with him as 'best mates'. Melissa, though a member of the friendship group did not share the close bonds held by Jake and Cassie. This is shown in the text through a flashback scene to their childhood:
The bite of winter certainly had little effect on Cassie and Jake’s games. Matched in indomitable spirit and rugged in woollen jumpers, they scaled monster trees, teeter-tottered on bikes along dam edges, and gallumped through paddocks, startling rabbits while cattle ruminated in the bending grasses. Melissa, timid and more interested in playing Barbies than adventure, lagged behind them, complaining. Under pressure from Leonie, Cassie and Jake modified their games to Hide-and-Seek so Melissa could play.
Immersed in her novel, Leonie knew little of the children’s friendship beyond the daredevil spirit of the duo and their resentment of Melissa’s intrusion. In later years, Leonie knew only that dance forged Cassie and Jake in partnership with Melissa an envious outsider (page 84).
Cassie and Jake's affinity is demonstrated by their like-mindedness in games, their shared desire for adventure, their inseparable friendship, and indomitable spirit. The word indomitable refers to a fearless and unconquerable spirit. Their relationship demonstrates the values underpinning the concept of belonging.
By contrast, Melissa's desire to be included in the friendship group demonstrates Melissa's perception that she belongs in the group. This is also the perception of Cassie's mother, Nancy, and her sister, Leonie. Melissa's perception is reflected by her complaining which represents a form of protest that her participation and interests were not considered and should have been. The fact that the children's games change to accommodate Melissa is a reflection of her claim on group membership and that she has a place within the small friendship group, albeit as a fringe member.
The excerpt clearly shows the difference between the concept and perception of belonging. It was Leonie's perception that Melissa belonged to the children's group that led to Cassie and Jake accommodating Melissa in play. Leonie was able to make Cassie and Jake include Melissa because of Leonie's role within the children's group and because the children were a subset of their respective parent's friendship group.
The excerpt also shows that from an early age, Melissa accepted and acted the role models and values in her world through Barbie games. The Barbie games symbolically represent preoccupations with body image, attractiveness, and acceptance of traditional female roles. Those interests and preoccupations place young Melissa as a potentially traditional female.
Jake's affinity with Cassie was also demonstrated in their teenage years when Cassie at sixteen experienced the grief associated with the death of a grandparent.
When her grandfather died a few months before her sixteenth birthday, she had not cried. At his funeral, the rest of the family had been awash with emotion. Her mother had been inconsolable and leant on her father. Leonie, her older sister, make-up tear-tracked and mascara running, had tried to provide support to Cassie who looked ill, but as the emotion of the service built, Leonie’s grief had given way to sobs. During the wake, Jake, Cassie’s soul mate from childhood, had found her sitting silently in her grandfather’s closet, inside Pop’s dark blue overcoat. (page 17)
Their affinity in the above excerpt is demonstrated by Jake's recognition of Cassie's emotional need, his subsequent search for her, his understanding of where she would seek solace, and his desire to comfort her. These behaviours are aspects of characterisation selected by the author to show the close bonds shared by this pair.
Cassie and Jake's relationship became increasingly contaminated by the transmitted values and expectations of the adult world around them - contextual aspects of place (physical, social, and psychological). Cassie and Jake increasingly clashed in the teenage years because Jake unthinkingly accepted the values of the male adult world around them while Cassie rejected them. In particular, Jake accepted his father's values and tried to live up to his father's expectations which were shaped by his father's culture (Spanish) and the attitudes of his father's generation. This is shown in the novel by:
Cassie knew all too well Mavis’ look. Jake’s mother and hers assumed the expression whenever their husbands flirted. Cassie had guarded against it when Jake followed his father’s lead. She knew even more the feeling: acid eating away the inner core of confidence. Was it always this way? Once possessed, always insecure?(page 146)
The metaphoric comparison to 'acid' emphasises the destructive impact of unfaithful male behaviours on women and their relationships. The use of the word 'possessed' equates marital relationships to male ownership rather than a relationship based on a mutual sense of belonging. Therefore, shared qualities that predispose people to belong together are not the sole determinant of whether or not a person ultimately feels she or he belongs. The values and attitudes of the world (place) in which a person lives also shape notions of identity, human relationships, and a sense of belonging.
You will find the complete discussion in Belonging: A Related Text Companion: In and out of Step. You can buy the companion from this website or from Buy from Amazon