Ballets Russes dancer Alexandra Baldina. Photo courtesy of Susan Tyne, Grades Examiner in the Royal Academy of Dance, U.K.
For as long as I can remember, I have loved to dance.
For as long as I can remember, I have not been very good at it.
On the inside, I'm Odette/Odile, Thoroughly Modern Millie, or part of a Chorus Line.
On the outside?
Ain't no way.
I've taken dance lessons of various types off and on over the years. Ballet. Tap. Folk Dance. Rythmic Gymnastics. Modern dance. More ballet. Square Dance. More tap. Clogging. Jazzercise.
I know an arabesque from a shuffle-ball-change and a pas-de-deux from a do-si-do.
Getting my body to cooperate fully has always been another matter.
Doesn't matter. Put music on and I start moving. On the inside, at least. I also know how not to embarrass my family and friends in public places.
In high school, my babysitting money paid for ballet lessons at a studio that was on my route home from school. In those days, the late 1960s, we walked to school. Two miles one way. No snow, because it was Southern California. Only one short uphill stretch. But I lugged a lot of books and my gym bag.
On Tuesdays, my gym bag also contained my leotard (black), tights (pink), and pointe shoes (pink satin Capezios). After school, I stopped at the studio, changed into my ballet attire, and spent an hour relevéing, pliéing, and pirouetting.
The owner was Miss Irene, a student of the Imperial Russian Ballet as danced by Tsarist era dancers. Miss Irene, in fact, had been a student of one of those dancers, and we learned to turn our legs out from the hip, to keep our hips aligned even when executing a rond de jamb en l'air, to hold our arms just so, and to turn our noses up at the mention of any of those upstart companies like the American Ballet Theater.
Miss Irene's teacher, she told us, had danced with Pavlova, with Nijinsky.
I practiced at home sporadically. Our single-wide mobile home didn't allow for much in the way of floor work, but I did my barre exercises at the kitchen sink or while brushing my teeth in the morning.
I knew I wasn't destined for a career in ballet, but I could dream, yes?
One day, Miss Irene had a guest.
"Hurry, girls," we were told as we arrived. "Miss Irene's teacher will conduct your lesson today."
Quickly we changed, then stepped onto the sprung wooden floor and took our places, facing the barre, in first position. The music began, and we slowly rose into a relevé-two-three-four-five-six-and-down-two-three-four-five-six. Behind us a stick beat time to the music.
Demi-plié. Grande plié. Second position. Turn and fifth position.
We dared not turn our heads, but we tried to look out of the corners of our eyes for a glimpse of Miss Irene's teacher, this remnant of another, more romantic, more terrible, Dr. Zhivago time.
She came behind us, adjusting our port de bras with her hands, correcting our turnout with her stick. Through each of the barre exercises, she wandered up and down among us, pounding her stick and counting.
We moved into the center of the floor. Now we could see her fully -- her face to us, her back reflected in the full-wall mirror behind her.
I don't know what I expected, but this woman was old. In her eighties, at that point. Short. Tiny almost. No longer petite, however. As do most women, she had spread a bit. She wore a skirt and blouse and shoes. But her posture was ramrod straight, her turnouts were perfect, and her bearing was . . . imperial.
At the end of the lesson, we each stepped forward and curtsied.
"Thank you, Madame," we murmured.
And that was it.
Still, I wondered. Really? Did this woman really dance with Pavlova? I didn't recognize the name. We only had Miss Irene's word, but why would I doubt?
Weeks later, I flipped through a stack of record albums at our local library. One was titled Les Sylphides, a ballet with music by Chopin. Idly, I turned it over and began to read about the work choreographed by Mikhael Fokine for the Ballets Russes in the early 1900s. Four principal dancers performed the premier in 1909, I read. Tamara Karsavina. Anna Pavlova. Vaslav Nijinsky.
And there she was.
Miss Irene's teacher.
The fourth principal.
Postscript: Not long after my lesson with Alexandra Baldina, my school activities crowded out my ballet time. I put away my toe shoes, and joined the debate team. Occasionally, I searched encyclopedias and other reference materials, but I never found anything about her. Then along came Google. My first search, a couple of years ago, yielded a link to Larry Long, director of the Ruth Page Foundation of Dance in Chicago, who had been one of Baldina's student. A few weeks ago, another search turned up a link to Susan Tyne, a Grades Examiner in the Royal Academy of Dance in the U.K. Susan's grandmother, Dorothy Tyne, also had been a student of Baldina's -- and the photograph on this page was given to Dorothy by Baldina. Baldina married Theodore Kosloff.