As we walked through the back door of the historic home-turned-dance-studio, the combined musty smell of old plank floors, floral perfume, and youthful perspiration was strangely familiar and welcoming.
"Hello, Krista-belle!" came the melodic greeting from around the corner.
"Hi, Miss Ann," I answered as I dropped my fully loaded tote on the floor. Hearing the nickname she gave to me always brought a smile to my face. It made me feel unique and special. "You girls put your shoes on and come to the barre. We'll get started in a few minutes."
Miss Ann did not walk into a room—she floated. It was as if she had invisible wings that carried her just above the ground, like a graceful hovercraft. Her baby-pink leotard and soft voile tutu revealed a slender figure, the result of a lifetime of dance. Her crimson hair was always perfectly kempt. There was a perpetual faint smile on her face, and a genteel countenance that permeated everything she said and did. She had a kindness that laced her voice and beamed from her soft, dark brown, almond-shaped eyes. Every little girl looked up to her with movie-star admiration and hovered close for her hugs. Miss Ann was a velvet force. She had an ever-present discerning attention to detail, and expected each little girl always to put her best foot forward—literally and figuratively—on the dance floor and in life.
This particular day, after our warm-up positions and compulsory barre exercises, we were asked to form a line to practice feats like our grand jetés, tour en l air, and pirouettes. This was the period in class where, individually, we would dance diagonally from one corner of the studio to another, and attempt to become 12-and 13-year-old Baryshnikovs. Some relished the opportunity to show their talents, and others detested it. I was the latter.
"One, two, three. One, two, three. Okay, ladies, let's begin!"
With that, our scrawny, swaybacked, blossoming bodies assumed the proverbial positions, and we began to take our turns jumping and gyrating with spirited, youthful energy. Some of the young girls were larger than life, defying gravity with their leaps, twists, and turns. They sprung high into the air with legs straight as needles and toes pointed into arched hooks, making their jeté jumps resemble those of Degas's dazzling, iconic dancers. Then came my turn. As I moved to the front of the line, my breath became fast and jagged, and I felt that tingly fear-inspired lightheadedness. As I leapt to the beat of the music, I envisioned effortlessly flying high. Up, up, and away I went, and within half a second—thud. I landed in a heavy heap in the middle of the large ballroom floor. I had landed on the side of my foot. My ankle had turned and instantly began to throb. Flustered, blood rushed to my face and tears into my eyes. All eyes were on the clumsy clump I had melted into. Without missing a beat, Miss Ann gave her baton to her assistant, and the line of pubescent ballerinas continued whirling and twirling. I limped to the dressing room with my head hanging and my confidence crushed. Miss Ann quietly followed.
"Now, now, Krista-belle, let's take a look," she said tenderly. After examining the slightly swollen ankle, she gently stroked my shoulder. "You are okay. This is just a small, little twist. In a few minutes it will be as good as new."
As I whimpered and sobbed with embarrassment, she continued. "Now, Krista-belle, there is no need for this. Everyone falls. The key is to get up. And you got up. Now, let's go back inside and try again."
There was no fanfare and no drama, just the expectation that I would go back inside and try again. Never wanting to disappoint her, I did exactly that. I wiped my eyes, brushed off the lint that clung to my black ballet tights, readjusted my shoes, and stepped back into line. As the notes of Tchaikovsky continued on, so did I.
FROM WHERE I SIT
"Miss Ann." Those two words conjure indelible memories of a gracious, graceful, and strong woman who taught and influenced countless young women in the course of her life. Those of us who were fortunate to have Miss Ann as our teacher and role model will remember her as the quintessential exemplar of what it meant to be a lady. For more than 35 years, Miss Ann taught us much more than just pliés, tour jetés, and arabesques. She was a source of ever-present encouragement, always ready with an "atta girl" when we accomplished something we didn't know we could. As much through her actions as her words, Miss Ann taught us how to be ladies, and how to handle even the most challenging situations with grace and quiet courage. Her noble nudges to keep moving forward opened doors of perspective for us to walk through, whether it led to getting up from a failed ballet move or pursuing a job opportunity we thought was beyond reach.