Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Curtain Call for the Last Real Ballerina

My dear friend and a true mentor passed away recently. Jacqueline Fry (May 6, 1939 - April 7, 2012), my ballet instructor and founder of New Orleans Dance Academy, was a timeless prima ballerina with a heart of gold. When she opened her mouth to discuss her old-school memories of ballet, I felt like I was watching a private screening of a movie that would never be seen again. I felt magic in her presence. Even though she was over seventy years old, she would still dance in class to instruct her students. With each pirouette and relevé her eyes would sparkle as her arms softly glided and folded towards the studio mirror as if she was still taking in the applause of thousands. She was classy, proper, while completely down-to-earth and in tune with the suffering of others. Suffering is a quality every ballerina must explore to all ends. Ms. Jackie was aware of the life problems and daily struggles of all her students. She would overhear our subtle complaints while stretching for class. The next week she would come up to a student in a plié at the barre and say, “So, how are things going?”

She was a legend who took me under her wing. I was a guy from off the street. I had no ballet or dance experience, and no money for classes. In exchange for classes, I would do handiwork around the studio. I would fix the bathroom, replace doorknobs, and run speaker wire. After a couple years of vigorous training and study, she gave me a rare shot at performing in my first ballet in the famous Loyola Roussel Performance Hall. It was a dream come true for me. Later, she taught me how to teach ballet.

Ms. Jackie and I would close up the studio together in the evening. I would grab the trash and turn off the light to the back studio. She would be waiting for me at the front door with her keys to lockup. I would walk her safely to her car. Occasionally, she offered to drive me home instead of making me take the bus. I would sit anxiously in the passenger seat with my hands in my lap, excited and nervous, asking as many questions about ballet as I could in the ten minutes it took to get me home. I was in the presence of the last real ballerina.



Jacqueline Fry as the Black Swan


Here is a poem inspired by the world Ms. Jackie opened up to me. 
From my book Exhuming Juliet (2009)   

Ballerinas

I dance with glistening ballerinas who shimmer in the
reflections of mirrors, a misty spray of fairy dust,
Degas alive, they stand before me, perfect posture gliding
from barre to barre, a deep stare from a little girl inside
clawing her way out from jump to jump

I follow their feet with my eyes, thousands of tiny feet,
I mimic their bold gracefulness
of solid white and black smearing the air

When still, they sit as small temples of beauty lacing up
their feet with silk ribbons,
it is always about their feet, hurting and frowning, talking
back to them

Life and power fill the room with each pirouette,
they bend to touch the ground, digging up strength,
endurance, blistering feet to build character—
while flimsy girls walk past the dance studio in
baggy clothes, undisciplined, comfortable

Ballerinas, serious, and stoic, planning a wedding,
not the pink and frilly girls who sleep with the boys
instead of the stars

I am boyish and coy in their royal astronomy


Copyright 2009 By Matthew Nolan 

2 comments:

  1. This is a lovely tribute to who sounds like a lovely lady. I am so sorry for your loss, darling.

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  2. This is a lovely tribute to someone who influenced you life in such a profound way. I know her passing must be difficult on you, but take comfort in knowing she thought as fondly of you and you did of her. After all, you were her star pupil!

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