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Read an Excerpt from When It All Syncs Up, Maya Ameyaw's Tale of a Dazzling Black Teen Ballerina

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In Maya Ameyaw's new young adult novel, When It All Syncs Up (Annick Press), Aisha seems to have everything going for her. She has a coveted spot in an elite ballet academy, a relentless work ethic, and natural talent. But when she is passed over again and again, she can't ignore it anymore – the reality that being a Black dancer means the powers that be at her school will never let her shine.

Determined to change her fate and get the opportunities she's earned, she transfers to a public arts school, where things seem to improve. The roles she deserves are finally coming her way and her talents shine brighter than ever, but the social landscape (which includes a longed-for reunion with her best friend, Neil) is complicated at best. 

Powerful, incisive, at times heartbreaking, When It All Syncs Up is a story of art, friendship, discrimination, passion, and ambition. It pulses with Aisha's fierce devotion to her art form, the intensity of first love, and the tension of growing up and learning what—and who—you can truly rely on. We're excited to share an excerpt from the novel courtesy of Annick Press, in which we see Aisha's uneasy first impressions of her new school, her evolving friendship with Neil, and the depth of her longing for an opportunity to showcase her abilities. 

Excerpt from When It All Syncs Up by Maya Ameyaw:

Huntley is way bigger than my school, but the building itself is like an architectural Frankenstein. Each department we walk through is a different design style of decades past—so unlike the uniform glass and steel minimalism of the academy. Even though I’ve never been inside before, it’s somehow familiar from the grand sum of all Neil’s stories.

Author Maya Ameyaw

Author Maya Ameyaw

As he leads the way through the maze of hallways, I try to imagine what it would be like to go here. The prospect of starting at a new school makes me instantly nauseous. But it couldn’t possibly be any worse than the last two years, since Neil would be with me. I almost start to relax for a second when my brain reminds me I still have to talk to my dad and pass the audition.

We find Ollie in the music room and head over to the auditorium.

“You okay?” I ask Ollie as we get backstage. He focuses on me, seeming to just now fully register my presence.

“I uh...” he trails off, staring blankly at the scuffed floor.

Neil and I exchange a look.

“Hey. You got this, man.” Neil hands him his amp. “We’ll be right here.”

Ollie takes it and nods stiffly before he walks out onstage to set up. He looks out at the packed audience blankly for a moment before he sets to work connecting his amp.

“Quiet everyone,” one of the teachers in the front row, a stout older man with glasses, calls out and the chatter stops. Right behind the row of teachers, I spot Sophie sitting with a group of girls. She gives Ollie a wide grin and a thumbs up, but he stares right through her.

“Do you think he’ll be all right?” I ask Neil under my breath.

Neil nods briefly. “He should be okay.”

“We’re ready, Mr. Cheriet,” the same teacher says.

Ollie closes his eyes and takes a few deep breaths before he starts playing. When he starts to sing, a few snickers ring out from the audience. He opens his eyes and stops. I follow his gaze to a row near the back, where a group of jock-ish looking boys sit. For what feels like forever, Ollie is frozen, staring at them.

“Oh shit,” Neil mutters.

“Assholes,” I grumble under my breath at the same time.

Come on, Ollie. You can do this, keep going. I squeeze my eyes shut and try to will him into motion again.

The audience titters. The same teacher tells everyone to shut up after a second.

Ollie reboots at the sound of the teacher’s voice. He stops staring at the guys who laughed, closes his eyes again, and continues. This time, though, it seems like he goes elsewhere. Somewhere that’s only for him, like I shouldn’t be here watching. But I can’t imagine looking away.

All the nervous energy in me starts to melt away, just like last night on his roof.

There’s a pause when he’s done and then everyone claps as he starts disassembling his equipment. I hear Sophie let out a whoop of support over the applause. Ollie doesn’t look over at her as he heads offstage toward me and Neil.

“You killed it, man,” Neil says.

“That was horrific,” he shoots back in a monotone as they exchange a standard bro hug.

“No, it wasn’t,” I say, and Ollie stares at me with such complete dejection that without thinking, I reach out and hug him too.

He’s still for a second, but then both his arms are around me, not like the one-armed back pat he just gave Neil. The thing happens again where my mind stutters to a stop and my eyes fall closed. When I open them a moment later, there’s a kid staring at us impatiently since we’re blocking the way to the stage. I quickly pull away from Ollie, and the kid brushes past us. I glance over at Neil, but he’s gone to grab the amp Ollie left onstage.

“Your pity and lies are appreciated,” Ollie mutters under his breath.

“I mean it. You were really great.” I want to say I’m proud of him, but he’ll probably think I’m patronizing him.

He’s looking at me too closely again, so I take off to help Neil.

I really don’t know how he was able to refocus and give such a moving performance, despite having to deal with those idiots. The way he blocked everything out and was so completely himself... I don’t think I would have been able to do that.

My stomach rolls uneasily as my own audition moves to the forefront of my mind again. Tonight, I’m going to have to get in as much practice as I possibly can. Even though I’m not sure if I’m ready to veer off the course I always imagined for myself, I know something has to change. I can’t risk slipping any deeper into the terrifying state I was in when I left school.

The auditorium is somehow even more crowded than yesterday and it’s not even nine in the morning yet.

I take a slow breath, but my heart keeps pounding at a punishing tempo. I recognize a few of the faces Neil introduced me to briefly yesterday, but I don’t spot Ollie among them. I didn’t ask Neil if he knew if Ollie was going to show up today, even though I wanted to. When we got back to their neighborhood after his audition yesterday, Neil asked Ollie if he wanted to hang out for a bit, but he just shook his head and took off.

Then Neil and I practiced for auditions in his basement. More accurately, I practiced for a little bit while Neil danced around in an exaggeratedly awful way that always cracks me up before the evening devolved into one of our silly little dance parties. Even though we’ve done the same thing over FaceTime every weekend for the last few years, it’s always so much better in person. We stayed up way too late and by the end of the night we were in hysterics. I couldn’t believe how easy and normal everything finally was again.

But now I’m kicking myself for slacking off. I got a bit more rehearsal in before Neil woke up this morning, but I still feel less than prepared.

I debated calling my dad last night, but I’m still not sure what I should do. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what Neil said about me possibly getting some lead roles here. I’d get into some college programs if I go back to ballet school, but so will everyone else there who didn’t get into the apprenticeship. Scoring some leading roles would really help me stand out on my applications.

When I didn’t get chosen for the apprenticeship, it was like my invisibility to my instructors and peers began to manifest into something terrifyingly real. Even though I felt that same disappearing feeling at the hospital, it was nothing like how awful it was at school. The thought of going back makes all the air leave my body, but so does the thought of asking my dad to quit.

I guess I don’t have to decide right this second what I’m going to do. I’ll just have to see how things go today.

“Yo, Roi!” I snap back into the loud, muggy room. Some guys in the front row are calling out to Neil, and we head over to them, Neil’s arm around my shoulder.

Neil shoots the boys a big grin. “What’s up?”

“Where have you been the last few weeks, man?” one of the guys asks him. “Weren’t you gonna throw an end-of-the-summer party? Your new girl been keeping you busy?” He laughs and the rest of the boys join him.

I lean away from Neil’s arm but stick close to his side as people push around us in the packed space.

“Guys, this is my best friend, Aisha.” I’m embarrassingly relieved I still hold the title. “She moved away a couple years ago. Aisha, this is Rashanth, Kevin, Dylan, and Scott.”

I greet them absentmindedly as I run through my routine in my head.

“Oh, she’s not your girl?” Kevin asks. His eyes leisurely make their way down my body. I zip my hoodie up to my chin, but he doesn’t stop.

“Saved you a couple of spots,” Rashanth says.

Neil shakes his head as he steps slightly in front of me. “Gotta make the rounds, catch you later.”

“Later.” Scott fist-bumps Neil. “Let me know if you need a hook up. My bro’s all stocked up.”

I shoot Neil a sharp look, but he ignores it as we take off. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that he’s moved beyond swiping booze from his dad’s liquor cabinet, but my gut still twists. Ollie said he’d been drinking more lately, but was that guy talking about hooking him up with drugs too? As far as I know, Neil smokes but doesn’t do anything harder. It’s starting to feel more and more like I know literally nothing about him.

Neil grimaces when he finds me still staring at him. “Sorry about Kevin. I’m not really even friends with those guys.”

“Didn’t they say you were gonna have them over for a party?”

“They show up at my parties, but I don’t actively invite them,” he says as another group of kids wave him over.

This process repeats several times, and each time Neil introduces me to a new subset of his school’s social landscape. Names fly out of my head the moment Neil says them, my mind almost entirely taken up by visualizing myself moving through my routine again and again.

I’m about to tell Neil we should head backstage to warm up when a blonde girl in a tiny floral dress jumps into his arms.

“Whoa there. Hey, Gwen.” Neil detaches himself from her.

“I missed you sooo much,” she says, leaning in super close to his face.

I raise my eyebrows. Should I know who this is? I don’t think he’s ever mentioned a “Gwen” to me. What the hell is going on?

Neil pulls back and laughs but not a real one. “Me too. Hey, Tara,” he says, addressing an unsmiling girl with a high ponytail who’s next to Gwen. “Guys, this is Aisha—”

“I need to talk to you.” Gwen grabs his hand and pulls him a few feet away before Neil can protest.

I glance at Tara. “Are they a thing?”

Tara sighs and shrugs. “Not really. She’s just been obsessed since they got together at Brandon’s party last month.”

“Oh.” What does that mean? That they fooled around or fully like... Neil hasn’t once mentioned any girls he likes, so it takes me a moment to process. I thought maybe he liked Sophie.

For some reason, I assumed he would tell me if he ever hooked up with someone. It isn’t a big deal really, but I thought it’d be something we’d talk about since he still considers me his best friend. I guess he thinks I’m too much of an inexperienced loser to relate. My stomach starts to turn again.

“Has anyone ever told you, you’re, like, model pretty?” Tara asks. She’s scrolling through her phone, not even looking at me anymore.

“No,” I lie.

A few people have told me that before, but I know it’s only because I’m tall. More often than not, kids at school and at my old studio would say the exact opposite, commenting on my hips, my thighs, and the one thing my self-control can do nothing to change—my skin.

Tara finally looks up. “Well, you are. And your braids are cool. How do you, like, wash your hair, though?”

I’m not in the mood for dumbass questions about my hair right now, passive-aggressive or not. Not shitting myself about the possibility of bombing my audition is taking up the majority of my brain power.

I unzip my hoodie again, not wanting to get onstage with my leotard already drenched in sweat.

“Usually just pop my head off and stick it in the washing machine,” I finally mutter, glancing over at Neil. Gwen’s pouting at him while he shakes his head.

“Wow, relax.” I turn back to Tara to find her glaring at me. “I was just curious. You don’t have to be such a bitch about it.”

I bite my tongue and refrain from glaring back at her. I don’t have the energy for this right now. Fiddling with the zipper of my hoodie, I realize there isn’t feeling in my fingers anymore and that my wrists are numb. Closing my eyes, I try my best to force the numbness away, to keep it together.

Neil is suddenly beside me again, herding me away. “Everything good?”

I shrug. “Pretty par for the course,” I say as we head backstage. No one else approaches Neil since everyone’s busy practicing. “What’s up with you and that girl?”

“Nothing,” is all he says as we find a spot to ourselves and start warming up.

“Right.” I push down the pang of hurt that he doesn’t think I’m even worth telling. Whatever. I need to focus anyway. As I stretch, I manage to calm some of my nerves, the feeling returning to my hands and wrists. The pre-performance hush of backstage, everyone quiet as they get into their zones, makes me feel as if I’m in the right place.

I put my headphones on and get into my own zone, going through my choreo in my head for the millionth time.


Excerpted taken from When It All Syncs Up by Maya Ameyaw, published by Annick Press. Copyright © Maya Ameyaw, 2023. Reprinted with permission. 

Maya Ameyaw is a former bookseller and currently works as a community arts writing instructor. She has edited several mental health–themed anthologies for youth and adults, and her writing was included in the anthology Brilliance Is the Clothing I Wear (Dundurn Press). Maya also runs a YouTube series and blog where she interviews YA authors about their writing journeys. She lives in Toronto and can be found on Twitter @MayaAmeyaw.

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When It All Syncs Up

A Black teen dancer with dreams of landing a spot in a prestigious ballet company must learn to dance on her own terms in this explosive debut about the healing power of art and friendship, perfect for fans of Heartstopper and Tiny Pretty Things.

Ballet is Aisha’s life. So when she’s denied yet another lead at her elite academy because she doesn’t “look” the part, she knows something has to change–the constant discrimination is harming her mental health. Switching to her best friend Neil’s art school seems like the perfect plan at first. But she soon discovers racism and bullying are entrenched in the ballet program here, too, and there’s a new, troubling distance between her and Neil. And as past traumas surface, pressure from friends and family, a new romance, and questions about her dance career threaten to overwhelm her. There’s no choreography to follow–for high school or for healing. Aisha will have to find the strength within herself–and place her trust in others–to make her next move.