The Old Russian Ladies Always Get the Best Spot at the Barre

When I was in ballet school I loved having the chance to attend the 10:00 a.m. class taught by Valentina Peryaslavic.  Because it was a mid-morning class I could only go during school vacations or the summer. 

I don’t know anything about her background but when I was 17, Madame “Perry” (as we called her) seemed ancient and wrinkled.  She wore industrial-looking blue suits and her hair was pulled straight back from her face into an alarming bun.  I was terrified of her but the first time I attended her class she complimented my hair, which I had arranged in an oddball array of braids that met on the top of my head.  Maybe I reminded her of a milkmaid on some Stalinist collective farm.  So I felt a little bit at home.

The reason to attend Madame Perry’s class was not really to get instruction.  Her English was very iffy and she barked out her directions in an odd fusion of French, Russian and English, so you had to figure out what she wanted you to do by looking at the other students.  I went to her class to see who else would show up.  If the Royal Ballet was in town from England perhaps Sir Anthony Dowell would be next to you doing his barre.  A slew of angel-haired boys from the Royal Danish Ballet attended one summer.  Often a haunted, wrung-out looking ballerina would sneak in when class had already started, find a spot at one of the barres in the middle of the floor and try to be anonymous.

It was very exciting to watch the stars, but in time I became more fascinated by the regulars – a group of three or four old (past 40?) women who spoke to Madame in French or Russian and who still had pretty good technique.  Their extension was sometimes as good as mine and their backs had not lost of bit of flexibility.  They were almost as scary as Madame – very dark hair, elaborate silk scarfs tied around their waists, and a way of holding their chins that made it clear they were not to be messed around with.  They came every day and always got the spaces at the barre along the back window.  In the winter it was sunny and warm and in the summer they got the first breath of breeze coming off Central Park.  Madame would sometimes walk over and chat with them before class.  They were always already there when I got to the studio, no matter how early I tried to be. 

I think of those ladies when I’m having a bad day.  I thought of them a lot as I read Twyla Tharp’s new book, “Keep It Moving,” which is all about the importance and power of keeping mobile and supple into old age. Now that I’m past the age of those Russian women I wish my back was still that flexible and that I had the courage to try to go to class even once a week, not five or six as they did.  But I am mostly glad that I have continued to hack away at the kinds of movement I like. I don’t do ballet class anymore but I do gyrotonic and pilates and at the gym I put my earbuds in and can pretend I am whatever I want and turn across the floor. I still do other things the Russian ladies did — – I am early, I take the best position in the room and act like I belong there, and I wear the now sadly discontinued Chanel Ballet Russe lipstick – even though it’s too startling a shade for me. And I do some port de bras and demi-pointe balances every day.

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