This New Book Celebrates the Strength of Female Athletes, Including Dancers

April 6, 2020

When Seattle-based journalist Haley Shapley signed up for a bodybuilding show, she was met with mixed reactions. Some people were excited for her, though not everyone was supportive. “Some were really concerned that I might be changing my body in a way that was not pleasing, or lifting too heavy and doing something that might be dangerous,” she says. “I was curious where those ideas come from about what activities are appropriate for women and what women should look like.”

That curiosity led her to write Strong Like Her, an exploration of women’s strength and involvement in sports, out today from Gallery Books. The book covers milestones from ancient times—like the first woman to compete in the Olympics in the fourth century BCE (because of a loophole)—to the triumphs of today’s household names, such as Misty Copeland and Serena Williams.

Accompanying the retrospective are profiles of 23 current athletes, each at the top of their respective sport, and striking photographs by Sophy Holland. There’s a fencer, a climber, a strongwoman, an ultramarathoner, an endurance swimmer, and, yes, three dancers.

The cover of Strong Like Her, featuring a woman flexing her arm
Courtesy Gallery Books

“It was really important to me to represent many different kinds of strength in the book,” says Shapley. “Thinking about dancers, they’re artists but they’re also athletes, and I wanted to highlight that.”

Each woman featured represents a different type of physical strength. American Ballet Theatre principal Stella Abrera, for example, suffered a serious back injury that took her offstage for two years, and she still reached the highest rank at her company—and was the first Filipina American to do so. “Her story is an inspirational one about the power of perseverance.”

Stella Abrera, in bare legs and black leotard, stands on pointe with her hands on her hips.
Stella Abrera

Sophy Holland, Courtesy Gallery Books

Patina Miller nabbed a 2013 Best Actress Tony for the Leading Player in Pippin, and her profile shines a light on athletes who are mothers. “She gets very real about what it was like for her to have a baby and to not quite feel like herself afterwards,” says Shapley, who describes how Miller used movement to connect with herself postpartum.

As a musical theater performer, Miller has also embraced lifting weights. “She overcame fears about strength-training—that it would make her too strong or too big—that I think a lot of women have. Lifting weights really prepared her for the grueling task of being on Broadway eight times a week,” says Shapley. “Although Broadway is not a sport in the technical definition, you really do have to train for it. It’s something that people might not traditionally think about when they’re thinking about athletes, but she really does train like one.”

Patina Miller, in black leggings, a crop top and character shoes, stands in parallel passu00e9 with energetic jazz hands splayed.
Patina Miller

Sophy Holland, Courtesy Gallery Books

Alicia Archer, an in-demand fitness instructor in New York City and a graduate of the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program, is featured in the book as a “flexibility enthusiast.” Post-graduation, she decided to pivot when she didn’t receive any dance company contracts. “She had always been interested in circus arts and in flexibility,” says Shapley, despite the fact that it didn’t come naturally to her. “So often when we don’t pick up a skill right away, we decide it’s not for us, and she pushed past that.”

Today, Archer’s Instagram is full of videos showcasing her newfound skills, like intricate handstand balance sequences, and the ones she’s still mastering. “She’s a great example of someone who is not a professional athlete, necessarily, but has found a passion and has pursued it,” says Shapley.

Alicia Archer, in a black leotard, leans forward and grabs her back leg from behind, pulling it into a standing split.
Alicia Archer

Sophy Holland, Courtesy Gallery Books

Overall, Shapley hopes that readers of Strong Like Her will find someone they recognize, as well as someone that they can be inspired by. “These women all have very different stories. They come from different places. But they each have something to add to the narrative about women and physical strength.”