She was a Prima Ballerina during the 1950s – captivating audiences with her grace, precision and artistry. Now, some 50 years later, she walks stiffly on arthritic feet. Her knees are rigid from decades of dancing on stage. Even though ballet was brutal on her joints, her love for the dance is no less. She continues to give ballet lessons out of her home despite her age and diminished mobility.
Her ballet studio is in her family’s 1800 era mansion that was once the height of elegance. Now it shows signs of disrepair and neglect. The cost of maintaining the mansion is too much for an elderly woman on a fixed income. A sign reading “Hillard School of Dance” is leaning to the side, shrouded by overgrown hedges. Decades ago the street was known for its mansions, but now it is known for crime that occurs when night arrives.
There are no fancy recitals at Mrs. Hillard’s School Of Dance. Instead, Mrs. Hillard invites the parents to watch their children perform. A cassette and record player provide music for the students. We wait patiently for Mrs. Hillard to rewind and fast forward the tapes. Flash photography is strictly prohibited, as are unruly younger siblings.
Class is about to start when Mrs. Hillard turns the front parlor lamp on. Five little girls clad in pink leotards step over the trash littering the sidewalk, and scurry up the front steps of the mansion. Their parents follow closely behind, more concerned with being late than the menacing looking thug approaching. We know Mrs. Hillard demands punctuality and, truth be told, we are all a little intimidated by her. In the winter, we know to close the front door quickly behind us lest warm air escapes. When it is raining out, we mustn’t step off the rugs because our wet shoes could make puddles.
Mrs. Hillard enters the studio and smiles at her ballet students. Her white hair is pulled back into a bun – a pink bow fastened above it. She wears a pink or light blue sweater with black pants. On her feet are ballet flats. Because of her stiff joints, Mrs. Hillard is unable to demonstrate the ballet steps for her students. To compensate, she has two older students show the girls the foot positions and how to pirouette and plie. After class, each little girl curtsies, says, “Thank you teacher,” and Mrs. Hillard hands them a dum dum lollipop. This excites my daughter the most.
“Mommy,” my daughter says on the way home from ballet one Saturday morning, “Ballet is getting boring. It’s not challenging enough. We never learn anything new.”
“I know it’s not very exciting,” I reasoned, “But Mrs. Hillard was a famous ballerina! She is teaching you very important steps.”
My daughter is silent, and I feel a pang of guilt. I would find the ballet class boring too, yet I don’t want her to take lessons anywhere else.
The usual response I hear when people learn we use Mrs. Hillard is, “She’s still alive? How old is she? I took ballet lessons from her when I was a kid and I’m approaching sixty!” I feel an obligation towards Mrs. Hillard. Leaving her class would feel disloyal – like we don’t acknowledge the talented lady she is. Secretly, I wish Mrs. Hillard would retire, releasing us without our having to stop lessons on our own.
After three years of ballet, my daughter qualifies for a level of gymnastics that will involve several hours a week of practice. This is our out from ballet. My daughter does not flinch when I tell her we are no longer continuing ballet lessons. She seems relieved.
I delay calling Mrs. Hillard, mentally practicing how I will tell her we are leaving. Finally, I pick up the phone, take a deep breath, and dial her number.
“But she’s so talented!” Mrs. Hillard says after I explain my daughter won’t be returning in September.
I apologize profusely. I can hear Mrs. Hillard’s voice waiver ever so slightly.
“I just don’t know what I am going to do,” she continues, “Everyone is leaving. Now I only have four girls left.”
It suddenly dawns on me. Mrs. Hillard doesn’t realize why her classes have not only failed to grow, but are declining. Her love for ballet, her skills in teaching, have not aged. But her body has. Most parents want a younger teacher – one who can still dance herself. Understandably, they want an instructor who teaches more ballet moves than the handful our daughter’s class has learned the past three years. But Mrs. Hillard still sees herself as a New York City Ballet Prima Ballerina.
“I tell everyone about you,” I say.
This is true, and people’s response is never one of interest. It’s not only Mrs. Hillard’s age that is a deterrent, it’s also the location of her studio. People would rather avoid the area altogether.
I apologize more and Mrs. Hillard tells me how my daughter is built for ballet and to please reconsider. I feel torn, but my daughter isn’t interested in ballet anymore. I find I am more concerned about Mrs. Hillard’s feelings than my daughter’s and – as much as I admire and appreciate Mrs. Hillard’s dedication to ballet – I know I can not send my daughter out of guilt. We end the conversation, and I join the rest who have left Mrs. Hillard’s School of Dance.