I take ballet classes at the Ailey Extension, which offers open classes for adults. Most of the time, my class meets on the fifth floor, and the building’s amazing floor-to-ceiling windows give us a view of the sun setting over midtown. Sometimes, like last night, we dance in the studio affectionately referred to as The Fishbowl, a ground-floor studio whose two walls of floor-to-ceiling windows give us a view of everyone walking past on 9th avenue or 55th street.
It also gives everyone walking down the street a view of us. With the exception of a few people deeply absorbed in cell phone conversations, everyone slows down to watch. A lot of people stop and watch for a while. A little African American boy, maybe six years old, even followed along with our exercises for a full ten minutes before his mom pulled him away—and he pulled her right back.
I don’t think people watch just because of our amazing dancing abilities. Few of us are professional dancers or performers; most of us are random New Yorkers squeezing in dance classes after full days at our jobs. I think that is a large part of why people stop and watch—because it’s a view into the daily lives of a couple dozen real people.
It got me thinking about why we read biographies. I think it’s for much the same reason: biographies let us look into the daily lives of real people. We don’t just want to know how many movies Anna May Wong starred in; we want to know about her father’s laundry. We don’t just want to know that George Crum invented the potato chip; we want to know about his relationship with his sister. We’re always curious about the details of people’s lives, the hobbies, the taste in books, the pitfalls. Most people don’t let us look that closely, so we take what hints we can: the book that’s being read on the subway, the dance class being taken in the fishbowl, the lunch being eaten on a park bench. Biographies give us a closer look at people who have done something amazing, so that even though we’re separated from them by years or continents or fame, we can see into their daily lives. We’re packed into subways and crowded streets with people we might never know, but biographies let us know a person a world away.