Alla Osipenko: The life of a Kirov ballerina


Who is Alla Osipenko?

For many dance students and balletomanes, her name and the name of the Kirov Ballet (now the Mariinsky) calls to mind Soviet dancer defections, the KGB and the Cold War. Osipenko was one of the great Russian ballerinas, a student of the famous Agrippina Vaganova, a partner to Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov – and a Kirov star who refused to join the Communist Party, an action which severely limited her travel and exposure to the world. After reading this biography by Joel Lobenthal, a dance historian who conducted over 40 interviews with Osipenko when she was living and working in Hartford, Connecticut in the late 1990s, the reader is left wondering how far her star might have risen had she either defected like her counterparts or acquiesced to the wishes of the Party.

“Alla Osipenko: Beauty and Resistance in Soviet Ballet” meanders at times, often jumping from one event in Osipenko’s life to another with little prelude or seeming connection, yet the ballerina’s life is so mesmerizing that the reader forgives the jumbled mess, which is a testament to Osipenko herself. She sounds like she was a fascinating subject to interview.

Born in Leningrad in 1932, Osipenko lived with her mother, Nina, a woman who pushed her only child into the dance world and insisted that her career come before everything else, including marriage and children, and her grandmother Maria and great-aunt Anna, two women whose lives were devoted to her. Osipenko’s father was imprisoned in Soviet work camps for much of her life, although he was later released and eventually remarried.

Life in the Soviet Union was harsh and often challenging, with resources like food and shelter severely rationed. The dance world, like all of the arts there, was supported – more accurately, controlled – by the government. While dancers were employed like any other workers, they were also expected to represent the Soviet Union in whatever they did.  Dancers who did not adhere to a code of conduct and whose morality was questioned, were often punished. For Osipenko, a rebel who bristled at being told what to do, her impulsive nature would lead her into several rash marriages, having a child with a man who was not her husband, and consequently admonitions from the Party.

Mount Holyoke College files, photo credit Igor Stupnikov

Alla Osipenko as the Lilac Fairy, Kirov Ballet, Mount Holyoke College files, photo credit Igor Stupnikov

In 1948, Osipenko began her studies with Vaganova, a teacher who studied with Enrico Cecchetti and brought back his Italian style of dance, fusing it with elements of the French school to come up with her own method of teaching which is called the Vaganova Method and is taught all over the world today. Vaganova was the first “real” teacher in Osipenko’s life, a ballet mistress who was exacting in her technique, expecting only the best from her students. At competitions and auditions, she could be a very strong source of support but privately, she was known to be quite demanding and not given to compliments.

At one such competition in 1949, Osipenko had an experience which would be repeated several times in her career and affect it greatly. After winning a medal (dance awards in Russia and elsewhere are to this day of greater consequence than they are in the United States), the Soviet Ministry of Culture made a pass at her, promising her a career in the Bolshoi Ballet, which was considered a superior company to the Kirov. Her reaction was to slap him. According to Osipenko, he vowed that she would never leave Leningrad “as long as I’m alive.” True to his word, she wasn’t allowed to leave the city for six years. Such was the power of the Party.


One tough dancer: after a devastating performance injury, Osipenko quipped to a friend, “You see I have no Achilles tendon. Sit down with us and let’s…drink champagne.”


In 1950, she joined the Kirov Ballet where she would dance for the next twenty years, have numerous roles created for her, fall in and out of love, and make great friendships, among them Alla Shelest, the second-ranked star in the Kirov at the time. Osipenko and Shelest were unfortunate enough to be dancing at the same time as Natalia Dudinskaya who directed the Kirov and its school with her husband and partner, Konstantin Sergeyev. Dudinskaya was an exceptional dancer but Osipenko and her biographer note that she commanded attention and important roles long past an age when it would have been gracious to allow herself to be replaced, thus keeping both Shelest and Osipenko on a lower rung than they might have had she retired.


After refusing to join the Communist Party, Osipenko told a friend, “When I left that meeting, I realized that my career was just down the drain.”

Alla Osipenko, 1968, Wikimedia Commons

Alla Osipenko, 1968, Wikimedia Commons


Two of Osipenko’s partners were Nureyev and Baryshnikov, both of whom defected from the Soviet Union. Nureyev’s defection occurred on the night of her 29th birthday, celebrated in Paris, the night before the company was to travel to London. Instead, Nureyev was nabbed by the KGB who told him he wasn’t going on to London with the company. On the way back, he managed to escape in the Paris airport. Not knowing that he was going to defect, Osipenko offered to go back to Moscow with Nureyev but was told there was nothing that could be done for him. Again, such was the power of the Party.

Other dancers would defect, most notably Natalia Makarova in the 60s and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1974, but Osipenko remained in Russia. She tried to resign from the company on her own terms but they refused to accept her resignation until it suited them and until they could be sure she wouldn’t defect. Eventually, she was allowed to leave; her final performance for the Kirov was filmed for television, but in front of an empty audience, save for her fellow ballerinas. It was an anti-climactic finale for a fruitful and astonishing decades-long career.

In 1971, she and her husband/partner John Markovsky left Russia to work for Leonid Jacobson’s Choreographic Miniatures Company as well as Boris Eifman’s Theatre of Contemporary Ballet, with Osipenko eventually, in the late 1990s, landing in Hartford, Connecticut to teach for the now-defunct Hartford Ballet. Following the death of her son, Ivan, however, she found herself yearning to return to Russia, which she did in 2000.

Lobenthal’s biography is an enthralling account of a unique personality in dance, a ballerina who was ahead of her time.



Dance Bloggers Share Their Best Of 2015


Kicking off a new year at Dance Advantage isn’t always easy.

“Where to begin?”   “What’s that first post of the new year going to be about?”

In the past I’ve hosted a Top Dance Blog contest between one year’s end a new year’s beginning and enjoyed its success. The contest itself got a little too big for my time budget but my favorite part was simply being able to share and support the work of other dance writers and bloggers.

So, in that spirit, our January Dance Circle roundup (we’ll do these monthly with different topics) features the posts or articles that these writers consider their best of 2015. Go ahead and click away. I hope you find something new. We’ll be here when you get back.


10 Essentials For The Adult Beginner’s Dance Bag — The Classical Girl

Dancers love “what’s in your dance bag?” posts – we can’t help but take a peek. The Classical Girl, Terez (who is an author and a favorite guest at Dance Advantage), shares the essentials. They work for any ballet dancer, really, but adult beginners will love this and the other posts at The Classical Girl website.


What Not To Do In Ballet! End Game. — The Accidental Artist

Inspired by a video from Wayne Byar, The Accidental Artist‘s post is a pitch to dancers to be more mindful of their approach to how they work. She encourages you to put intention into the process, rather than work to the “end game” of getting the highest leg, the highest jump, the most turns, the best turnout. Getting noticed by cheating your technique is not the end game… so what is the end game?


The Dancer with Cancer — CABARRET

Nicole is a dancer, a creator, an inspiration and in this post she reveals her diagnosis and some of the things she’s learned so far in her journey and fight against cancer. She writes, “Being diagnosed with cancer has not made me suddenly wise. If anything, it has shown me how much I don’t know. Not just about the world, but about myself and my body, subjects with which I thought myself to be intimately acquainted.”


An Interview With Monica Wellington (Creator of My Ballet Journal) — Picture Books & Pirouettes

As a teacher and parent, when I’m looking for insight and recommendations for children’s literature about dance and movement, I visit Kerry’s site, Picture Books & Pirouettes. Read her interview with author/illustrator Monica Wellington to find out more about MY BALLET JOURNAL, a journal and coloring book for young dancers she created with her daughter, Lydia (a professional ballerina with NYCB). The book is a perfect keepsake for school-age dancers who want to record their dance memories throughout the year!


Bowling Dance — Maria’s Movers

As usual, the year’s best at Maria’s Movers is a great idea for your dance classes for little danccers. Turn the dance studio into a bowling alley and do a bowling dance!


Joffrey’s ‘Sylvia’ breaks from tradition, just like it used to (Review) — Art Intercepts

What do YOU know about Sylvia? Chicago dance writer, Lauren Warnecke of Art Intercepts writes, “Throughout its history, critics have felt that Sylvia‘s one redeeming value is its magnificent score, and indeed, it’s hard not to love Leo Delibes’ splendid music. John Neumeier’s version, performed last fall by the Joffrey Ballet, has so much more than that going for it. Honestly, Sylvia‘s only problem is that nobody has ever heard of it.”


All Shadows Whisper of the Sun — Setting The Barre

On a chilly February morning, Kirsten of Setting The Barre explores the connection between light and darkness and its prevalence in the ballet world.  From sweat, toil, and callus comes one of the world’s most ethereal art forms.  Featuring photos by Jenay Evans and the custom Setting The Barre leotard, designed especially for the blog by Miss Jones Dance.


{artist} challenge — Tutus&Tea

Throwing back to 2015’s ‘Artist Challenge’ that decorated Facebook, Instagram and various realms of social media, Shelby of Tutus&Tea reflects on ballet’s relevancy beyond the stage, the luxury of savoring our favorite moments performing as live artists, and the joy of shedding light on the fellow dancers that inspire us to keep aspiring for more.


Super Ballet Ads — Clara’s Coffee Break

What makes a memorable video promo for a ballet? Rachel shares her thoughts on ballet trailers at Clara’s Coffee Break



Dancers: Let’s Talk Core Control — 4dancers

4Dancers Dance Wellness Editor, Jann Dunn has written a thorough and thoroughly awesome piece on core control, otherwise known as back stabilization, that breaks it down so that students and teachers might really understand the concepts. Seriously, if you read no other article on core control in 2016, make it this one.


Improving the Dancer’s Arch: Do Foot Stretchers Really Work? — The Healthy Dancer

Dancers spend a lot of time trying to improve the arches of their feet. Using a foot stretcher seems like it would be a great idea – but do they really work and is using one a healthy way to improve a dancer’s foot? Find out at The Healthy Dancer.

At Ballet to the People the post that seemed to rile readers the most this year, to blogger, Carla Escoda’s surprise, was not her assessment of Milwaukee Ballet’s Giselle set in a Nazi concentration camp, nor her intensely personal reaction to Ai Weiwei’s political art installation on Alcatraz. It was her proposal to ditch the 32 fouettés! Read her post to find out why she wants to kiss them goodbye…


Sara Esty – A True American in Paris — A Dancer’s Days

Blogger Rhiannon Pelletier of A Dancer’s Days takes the opportunity to talk to Sara Esty, “Lise” alternate in the new Broadway hit An American in Paris, about her experience with the show, what made her transition from the world of classical ballet to the big world of Broadway, and how her training aided that change (along with a few other juicy details!).


OffDayThe Off Day Ballet Dictionary — Adult Ballerina Project

Messy classes are unavoidable, despite our best efforts. So, perhaps we should make lemonade and think of “off days” as a unique subset of ballet with its own rules and definitions. Rachel Hellwig explains further in her contribution at Adult Ballerina Project.


3 Mindset Changes You Must Adopt to Succeed in Dance — The Dance Training Project

To train the body without taking the mind into consideration will not allow a dancer to succeed. Physically, we encounter the challenges of technical plateaus, becoming over-trained, and injured, but mentally we start to doubt ourselves, our chosen path, and our ability to be great dancers, which can be even more detrimental, as before we can do something, we must first believe we can do it. These three mindsets are crucial to tapping into your true potential as a dancer. Read more at The Dance Training Project.


How to Cope with Loss – Part 1: Mourning the Untimely Death of My Future Self — The Girl With The Tree Tattoo

The Girl with the Tree Tattoo‘s best post of 2015?  The complete upheaval of her ballroom dance journey.


25. Crystallized : Contemporary — Jessica Maria MacFarlane

“Contemporary dance hitches a ride on the fame and fortune of classical ballet, while classical ballet tugs at contemporary dance for an awakening,” writes Jessica Maria MacFarlane (J.M.M.). “I’m swayed between the two, and this image of pointe-wearing improv pieces haunt me. They don’t really work together in the very strict sense. I’ll continue to eat it up nonetheless and welcome contemporary dance choreographers to classical ballet companies, but I know we must try to not just crystallize or blur the lines of both dance forms for the sake of blending. We must keep dance at the forefront with separate education and awareness on all genres of dance that interact and collaborate together…” Read more of Jessica’s musings as she writes about the past, present, and future of dance at her self-titled site.


Rules Of The Game — Enforced Arch

Enforced Arch founder, James Koroni shares the exciting news that he has been invited by Jonah Bokaer, media artist and choreographer to participate in Rules Of The Game, a multidisciplinary work featuring visuals by Daniel Arsham and music by Pharrell Williams. Learn more about the work in this recent post.


SoundsOfATaplifeSounds of a #TapLife

Whether we are willing to accept it or not, the universe works in mysterious ways. Seen or unseen, there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes of life. Over time, Anthony Lo Cascio has discovered the universe will try to teach the same lesson over and over again until one is willing to respect it, recognize it, or learn it. Sounds of a #Taplife premiered in early December in NYC and is a reflection of some of the greatest lessons Anthony has learned and a connecting of those dots. See the performance in this recently released video.



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How To Clean Practically Anything Dance-Related

“How do I clean my ____?”

How to Clean Practically AnythingDance-RelatedIt’s no secret that dance isn’t always glamorous but your dance stuff doesn’t need to be the dead giveaway. Because dance gear doesn’t always come with instructions for proper care, we’ve gathered tips and advice on cleaning practically everything dance-related. Now you can leave the “Dirty Dancing” to Patrick and Jennifer with these tips for making shoes, dancewear, costumes, floors, and more look good as new.


Cleaning Dance Shoes

We’ve already covered basic dance shoe care, including storage and repair but if your shoes could use some sprucing up, here are some detailed cleaning tips:

Leather Ballet Slippers

Leather ballet slippers can easily be spot cleaned. Sometimes just a soft, damp cloth will do.

For a deeper cleaning, use a mild detergent or dish soap. There are two ways to do this: 1) rub a drop of detergent onto the soiled shoe and then wipe it clean with a soft, dry cloth or toothbrush or 2) add a few drops of detergent into a cup of water and mix until sudsy, then apply to shoe with a soft cloth.

Leather cleaner can also be used but be sure to apply a conditioner to keep the leather supple. Other commonly-used methods include using melamine foam (more popularly known as a Mr. Clean eraser), or Windex (sprayed onto a paper towel or cloth, not directly on the shoes) to clean your leather slippers.

Leather ballet slippers should NOT be cleaned in the washing machine. If your shoes are beyond spot cleaning, you can hand-wash them with a bit of mild detergent. It’s a good idea to wear the slippers while damp to allow them to mold to your foot.

Where you should NOT wear your slippers if you want to keep them clean. "ballet shoes" by Allie Holzman is licensed CC BY-ND 2.0

You should NOT wear your slippers here if you want to keep them clean. 

“ballet shoes” by Allie Holzman is licensed CC BY-ND 2.0

Keep in mind that water can make leather brittle so any method involving water should be used as little as possible clean your ballet slippers.


Canvas Ballet Slippers

Canvas ballet slippers can be cleaned in the washing machine. It’s best to wash them as you might other delicates: put them in a small lingerie bag and wash on cold, delicate cycle with a mild detergent. Don’t use fabric softener or bleach products.

DO NOT tumble your canvas ballet shoes in the dryer. Reshape them and lay them out on a towel to dry.

Washing canvas ballet slippers with this method may remove most dirt and grime but does not always restore the lovely pink or blush color of your shoes. For performance, many dancers dab either a matching foundation makeup or calamine lotion (which has a pink color) onto canvas slippers with a soft cloth, makeup sponge, or cotton ball to make them look like new on stage.


Pointe Shoes

What do the Wicked Witch of the West and pointe shoes have in common? Both can be destroyed by water. What a world, indeed!

Because of this fact and the generally short lifespan of a pointe shoe, most dancers just conceal dirty spots with foundation or calamine lotion before a performance. Students who do not go through shoes as quickly, may prefer to keep their pointe shoes clean and shiny by using pointe shoe covers during class.

All cleaning methods will dull the shine of pointe shoes but if that’s not a concern for you, there are a couple of ways to clean the satin. You may use dish detergent mixed into a small amount of water to spot clean a pointe shoe. Just be very careful not to saturate the shoe or you will risk breaking down the glue needed to help support the foot en pointe.

Another recommended cleaner is baking soda. Mix it with a bit of water until it forms a thick paste. Apply a small amount of the paste to spots and stains with a soft cloth or toothbrush and gently rub into the fabric with a circular motion. Allow the paste to dry overnight and wipe away the now chalky paste with a warm, damp (not wet) towel or washcloth – use a clean part of the towel for each spot to get all the chalky substance off the shoe. This will fade if not remove any marks on the pointe shoe but it will also dull the shine.


They'll never look this good again."new pair of pointes" by mararie is licensed CC BY-SA 2.0

They’ll never look this good again.
“new pair of pointes” by mararie is licensed CC BY-SA 2.0


Tap/Jazz Shoe Scuff Marks

Surface grime and unsightly scuff marks can sometimes be removed from leather tap or jazz shoes by using baby wipes but most people swear by melamine foam for getting rid of marks from tap shoes and jazz shoes of any color. For stubborn scuffs, some apply pure acetone (nail polish remover) with a soft cloth, cotton ball, or Q-tip. Be sure not to rub too hard when using these methods as it’s possible to rub color from the shoe.

After cleaning the scuff, restore the shoe’s shine with a bit of petroleum jelly (Vaseline) or a matching shoe polish.

As with leather ballet slippers, matching foundation can be applied to tan leather tap or jazz shoes to temporarily improve their look for performance.

Because cleaning jazz shoes in the washing machine isn’t an option, shoes can get pretty stinky over time. You can find some odor-eliminating options at (Remember, use the sprays recommended via the link only on the inside of the shoe. Also, leaving shoes in the sun to dry can damage the color – try using a blow dryer on cool to dry instead.)


Cleaning Dancewear

Yes, almost all dancewear for class like leotards and tights can be thrown in the wash. These items will last much longer if they are washed in cold water and a mild detergent without bleach (don’t use fabric softener) on the hand-wash or delicate cycle. Putting them in a lingerie bag provides further protection from snags and from getting stretched out of shape.

I know for time’s sake, some dancers tumble dry their leotards on low heat. If you want your dancewear to last, though, it is best to lay it out to dry because heat gradually ruins the elasticity of stretch fabrics.


Greying Tights

If you or your kids have been dancing for a while, you know how quickly pink tights start to look grungy and grey, especially around the heels and toes. According to one blogging dance mom, the absolute best way to wash dirty tights is with a bar of Dove soap. Scrub the soap directly into the stains – really lather them up. Then, rinse them thoroughly with cool water and hang to dry. Apparently, this method is no match even for red lipstick!

"Tutu Repairman" by Billie Grace Ward is licensed CC BY 4.0

“Tutu Repairman” by Billie Grace Ward is licensed CC BY 4.0


Cleaning Costumes

Costumes made from durable fabrics like cotton/polyester blends, polyester, nylon, etc. can usually withstand machine washing and low-heat tumble drying unless they are trimmed or embellished with sequins or stones. If they are, handwash them.

Handwash anything made from delicate fabrics like lycra, spandex, tulle, cotton, linen, or knits. Hang-dry delicates or lay them flat if they contain stretch fabrics. Make any need repairs to costumes prior to washing them so there is no further damage.

Use a reputable dry cleaner for anything made of fabrics like wool, leather, chiffon, velvet, rayon, or satin. Keep in mind, however, it’s not recommended that you dry-clean costumes with stone or sequins embellishments. In fact, it’s best to spot-clean whenever you can as fabrics are damaged over time by harsh dry-cleaning chemicals.

Some costumes with heavy embroidery should never be washed. Dancers should wear leotards, tights, or other undergarments if possible to reduce the amount of perspiration on the fabric. You can eliminate odor with sprays (make sure you test them on an inconspicuous spot first). The wardrobe departments of many dance companies will hand wash only the panty area of a ballet bodice and use fabric-refresher sprays on the armpits or anywhere the bodice touches the dancer’s skin. A 50/50 dilution of alcohol and water can kill bacteria and odor without damaging the garment.

Wrinkles aren’t really part of cleaning but they do come as a result of it sometimes. To iron wrinkled costumes, turn them inside out and use a cool setting with a towel between the iron and fabric. Steam anything that is too delicate for ironing like tutus. Many dancers rely on hot shower steam to get the wrinkles from their costumes.

Cleaning Marley Floors

Poly-vinyl-chloride (PVC), or marley flooring is often used in dance studios and for performance. Typically manufacturers supply very detailed instruction on the proper care and maintenance of these floors. If you want the floor to last, follow their instructions! The main points to remember for cleanliness and your dancers’ safety are as follows:

  • Keep street shoes off the dance floor — they bring in abrasive dirt and grime. Better still, have dancers wait to put on their shoes until they are in the studio to avoid bringing in debris from the lobby, dressing rooms, etc.
  • Dry mop or sweep the floor daily using a clean mop/broom. (Do not use anything that is oil-treated.)
  • Do not use household cleaners and avoid cleaners with acetone, alcohol, ammonia, or bleach.
  • Use a neutral pH cleaner only and, for very dirty floors, a degreaser.
  • Humidity makes the floor slippery. If this is a problem, use a dehumidifier overnight.
  • Deep clean your floor bi-monthly or quarterly (depending on your studio traffic). A commercial wet-vac or automatic scrubber is often recommended.


Scuff Marks

There are different kinds of scuff marks – rubber, metal, leather – when soles begin to disintegrate, they leave behind residue on your dance floor. Even dye from a shoe can leave a mark on your Marley floor that is tough to get rid of. The key to successfully removing all scuffs is to get to these marks as fast as possible. Therefore, your best defense may be a routine daily cleaning schedule so that problems are spotted right away.

There are products sold by dance floor manufacturers specifically for removing scuff marks from vinyl. Yes, they are expensive but keep some on hand for times when stubborn scuffs don’t come up with regular cleaning.

If tap dancers use your floor, have artificial chamois cloths handy to use on your dry mop (or swiffer). Lower-quality, aluminum compound taps break down and the shards stick to your Marley floor. The artificial chamois will help to clear this residue. A wet/dry shop vac may also be used.


Cleaning Mirrors

Glassless Mirrors

Many studios now use glassless mirrors because they are shatterfproof. To clean glassless mirror, first remove dust and debris from the surface of the mirror with dry compressed air. Finger marks or splashes can be wiped gently with window cleaner and a soft, non‐abrasive cloth (100% cotton or micro-fiber will do). Do not use paper towels and do not scrub the mirror surface in a circular motion.

"Mirror" by Quinn Dombrowski is licensed CC BY 2.0

“Mirror” by Quinn Dombrowski is licensed CC BY 2.0

Glass Mirrors

It’s no longer true that newspaper is the best way to clean glass mirrors because the inks used on newspaper have changed over the years. And, I’m sure you know paper towels are not the way to go unless you like all that lint left behind.

So what is the best method?

  • First, use rubbing alcohol on a cotton pad to spot-clean any sticky spots on the mirror like hairspray, or whatever was on your preschool students’ fingers before they came to class.
  • Next, mist vinegar and water or your favorite glass cleaner onto the surface of the mirror.
  • Then, use a folded flat weave microfiber cloth (it’s all about using the right tools) to wipe the mirror in a zig-zag pattern (sweep from left, down a little, go back from right, repeat) so that you don’t miss any of the mirror’s surface.
  • Use a dry part of the cloth and repeat this process on each section or panel of the mirror.


Mixed Materials

What about things made of a variety of materials? We recently received an email about how to clean spilled milkshake from a dance sneaker for example!

Our best advice for this kind of dance gear, whether you wear it, carry it, or stuff it in your dance bag, is to research the list of materials of which product is made. Online stores or the manufacturer’s website will often give a basic list in the description if you look carefully. In the case of the milkshake debacle, the sneakers are made of mesh, leather, and other materials, each of which needs to be cleaned in a slightly different way. Just throwing them in the wash and hoping for the best is a great way of ruining an expensive pair of shoes. In cases like this, Google is definitely your friend.


How about cleaning dances? 😉

Ha ha! We thought about adding that to this already long post but it really deserves its own feature.

As for the cleaning tips and advice we have included, we’ve done our best to compile information from experience and trusted sources but, as always, the information offered is for educational purposes only. This includes anything readers place in the comment section. We can’t be held responsible for any outcome of what you, the reader, decide to do with the information presented here.


What are YOUR best cleaning tips and tricks? We’d love to hear about them in the comments!


“Rebel on Pointe”: an independent spirit in a traditional world

Lee Wilson-book coverOn the first page of her memoir, dancer Lee Wilson voices an important nugget of truth in a single line:

“In the 1950s and 1960s, many people thought of dance as a pastime for pretty young girls before they settled down and got married.” (p.1)

Women in the Fifties and Sixties had far fewer career choices than they do now and far fewer than men in the same time period. Wilson reminds us that, although women, such as Lucia Chase and Agnes de Mille, and gay men, such as Antony Tudor and Jerome Robbins, were the dance company directors and choreographers, it was a white straight man who was acknowledged as transforming ballet for America: George Balanchine. (p. 97)

Throughout the memoir, Wilson – who spent the bulk of her ballet career in Europe – is an interested observer in the American dance scene. She places it in historical context for us and gently reminds us that the world is a far larger place than most Americans imagine, such as she discovered when President Kennedy was shot while she was in France. Expecting to find a special edition of the local paper, she was told, “Of course not…this isn’t America.”(p.171)

A native of Delaware, Wilson grew up with three younger brothers in a traditional home. Her father worked and her mother raised the children. But from a young age, Wilson knew she wanted more than that. During a visit to her father’s office one day, where she saw him being waited on by his secretary and lounging in air-conditioned comfort while Wilson’s mother worked her fingers to the bone at home, she realized, “I wanted to be a person who worked.” (p. 5)

From the outset, she was determined.

She was a small woman, with a self-described non-ballerina body, and didn’t have a wealthy family supporting her. She was up against tough odds to become a professional dancer but she did it through hard work and sheer willpower. After lessons in Delaware and later Philadelphia, she auditioned for Julliard but did not get in. Her mother brought her to the Professional Children’s School in New York City so she could graduate early and get moving on her professional career as a dancer. She also took classes at Ballet Theatre School (which would funnel students into American Ballet Theatre) and thrived.

Photo Credit Bonnefon

Wilson in Bordeaux Opera Ballet , Photo Credit Bonnefon

But when it came time to graduate and audition for companies, the market in New York City was either unstable (ABT) or unappealing (NYCB). This line from Wilson sums up her opinion at the time quite succinctly:

“The more I thought about…the New York City Ballet, the less I could see myself in an environment apparently dominated by one man.” (p.65)

And so, when the opportunity arose to move to Europe (her father was offered a job in Geneva, Switzerland), she jumped for it and thus began her career in the international world of ballet.

Throughout the book, Wilson brings the reader back to the financial practicality of being a dancer. While Wilson’s mother might have been supportive of her career in her own way, Wilson’s father made all the money – and all the decisions about what to do with it. With each step she took, she needed to prove to him that she was deserving of an allowance to buy pointe shoes and take ballet classes. As an underage dancer, her goal was always to become a working professional, with a steady contract and income. Naively she believed that she could live on a dancer’s salary and would be hired full-time with a company when she came of age. In each city and with each job she worked more and made more contacts, but she was only eking out a living along the way. Several times her mother simply said no, that her father would not pay for something and that it was up to Lee herself – at the young age of sixteen or seventeen – to figure out a way to pay for it. That’s a lot of responsibility to place on a child’s shoulders, especially one living in another country.

Despite the financial limitations, the careful parceling out of funds to pay for decent meals and proper housing, Wilson enjoyed a career highlighted by dancing with Rosella Hightower and in front of European royalty. She saw ballets and operas and took class beside Rudolf Nureyev. After returning to the United States, she danced on Broadway in “A Chorus Line” and “Oklahoma” among many others. She closes her memoir with this line:

“At a time when society clipped the wings of women and pushed them into subservient positions, dance allowed women to soar.”

Lee Wilson graciously agreed to answer some questions I had after reading her memoir.


Leigh Purtill (LP): Did your independence have any impact on your mother’s life?

Lee Wilson (LW): I don’t know if my choices had any impact on Mom, but her choices had a great impact on me. When Mom was twenty-one, she spoke five languages fluently. During World War II, she was an officer in U.S. Army Intelligence based in Washington, D. C., where her job involved breaking codes. But at the end of the war, women were pushed out of the workplace, and Mom, like most other women, got married and became a housewife. She homeschooled my brothers and me and washed out diapers in the toilet. She was financially dependent on Dad and a second-class citizen in society. At the ballet, women could be the stars. Men and women were equally respected and equally paid, and I wanted to be part of that magical world.

LP: How do you feel ballet has changed for women in the decades beyond those covered in your memoir?

LW: In mainstream society, women have more power than they had in the 1960s. In ballet, they have less. The most powerful position in a ballet company is the artistic director because she chooses the repertoire and hires the choreographers and the dancers. In the 1960s, Lucia Chase ran Ballet Theatre; Dame Alicia Markova was director of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, and Rebekah Harkness founded the Harkness Ballet. Today the ratio of female to male artistic directors is much lower than in the 1960s, and the vast majority of choreographers are still male.

Photo Credit Arks Smith

Wilson in Oklahoma, Photo Credit Arks Smith

LP: Do you see new challenges for ballet to remain relevant? Do you see the differences between Europe and the US as clearly as they were when you were dancing?

LW: Ballet will remain relevant as long as choreographers tell stories that audiences want to see. According to a 2011 Dance/USA survey, women buy 77% of ballet tickets, so successful ballets must appeal to women. Since 35% of female ticket buyers have children in the home, some new ballets should appeal to families. This doesn’t mean that ballets can’t have sex and violence. Romeo and Juliet has both, but it also has a sympathetic, three-dimensional female lead, a fast-moving plot, and an inspiring, cathartic ending as the warring families reconcile. The most popular and enduring ballets are story ballets, so as long as choreographers come up with compelling stories and tell them musically and dramatically, ballet will be relevant. Dancers in major companies can perform dazzling pirouettes, thrilling leaps, and jaw-dropping lifts. The best of the best are extraordinary actors as well, so the execution of the choreography is in excellent hands.

There are still big differences between the U.S. and Europe. People in the U. S. glorify individual achievement, fame, and money. In Europe, the focus is on things that benefit the community: infrastructure, health, education, and the arts. The difference in focus affects everything from how and what people eat to the cost of ballet tickets or a college education to the number of homicides in schools, churches, and movie theatres.

LP: Your memoir ends with a note that you transitioned to a career in Hollywood. Can you expand a bit on that?

LW: My last Broadway show was “Meet Me in St. Louis.” After it closed, I was given the opportunity to write a holiday special, “The Elf Who Saved Christmas.” When it aired, the show received excellent ratings and reviews, and USA Network requested a sequel, “The Elf and the Magic Key.” Shortly after that, I wrote a TV movie, “The Miracle of the Cards,” which is based on a true story. It took forever to get the life story rights, but I produced the film in 2001, and it won the 2002 Epiphany Prize.

Photo by Lesley Bohm

Photo by Lesley Bohm

Lee Wilson made her debut as a classical ballet dancer at the age of sixteen in a command performance for Prince Rainier and Princess Grace in Monte Carlo. She danced for gun-toting revolutionaries in Algeria, American aristocrats at the Metropolitan Opera, and a galaxy of stars on Broadway. She worked with many of the great dancers and choreographers of the late 20th century, including Nureyev, Bruhn, Markova, Hightower, Ailey, and Bennett. She is an award-winning actress/writer/producer.

She currently lives in Los Angeles and can be reached through her website:

Her memoir, Rebel On Pointe can also be purchased through Amazon.

Jazz Dance Legend: Gene Kelly

“You dance love, and you dance joy, and you dance dreams. And I know if I can make you smile by jumping over a couple of couches or running through a rainstorm, then I’ll be very glad to be a song and dance man.” – Gene Kelly


Gene Kelly

Gene kelly” by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

It’s hard to imagine a man who performed on Broadway and in some of the most iconic movie musicals in history saying he never wanted to be a dancer. But defying normal expectations was just Gene Kelly’s way.

The man who is cherished to this day for his roles in movies such as “Singing in the Rain” and “An American in Paris” not only graced the big screen with his dance talent – he changed the way dance was perceived on film and made his athletic style a staple of American dance.


From Baseball to Ballet

Gene Kelly was born in the Highland Park district of Pittsburgh on August 23, 1912. The third of five children, Kelly was a sports fanatic and dreamed of playing shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates. His mother was determined that her children be educated in the arts, however, so Kelly began taking dance classes at a young age – and proved to be a natural.

Kelly’s mother also prioritized education, so Kelly went on to study economics at Penn State University. Only a year had gone by when the Great Depression hit and Kelly was forced to leave school to earn money. Throughout this time he worked as a bricklayer and soda jerk in addition to dancing in various Pittsburgh clubs and theaters. Kelly ultimately completed his economics degree at the University of Pittsburgh in 1933 and headed for law school, but it didn’t take long before he realized law wasn’t for him. Thankfully for the rest of us, he decided to pursue his dance career instead.

Kelly immersed himself in teaching at his family’s dance school, which became known as the Gene Kelly School of Dance. He did this all while performing, directing, and choreographing for shows throughout Pittsburgh. But by 1938, Kelly was on the move again. Feeling that he’d done all he could for his career in the teaching department, Kelly made his way to Broadway. Unsurprisingly, he was met with success soon after.


Broadway and Beyond

Starting with small roles in “Leave it to Me!” And “One for the Money,” Kelly’s Broadway career escalated after Hollywood executive Louis B. Mayer saw him in the lead role of “Pal Joey” and offered him a movie contract with MGM. Kelly made his film debut in 1942 in “Me and My Gal,” which costarred Judy Garland.

Kelly’s movie career truly took off after his groundbreaking “Alter Ego” performance in Columbia Pictures’ “Cover Girl” (1944), in which he performed with himself thanks to the double exposure of the film. It was not only the first time such a feat had ever been done, but it was also the first time a dance number actually moved the movie’s plot along instead of merely being tossed into the picture. It was also the last time MGM lent Kelly to any other studio.

MGM cast Kelly in a variety of musicals after, one of the most memorable being “Anchors Aweigh.” World War II put Kelly’s career on pause as he enlisted in the Navy from 1944 – 1946, but he was back on the dance floor soon enough upon his return.

From showing off his jazz skills in “On the Town” (1949) to choreographing a lengthy ballet in “An American in Paris” (1951) to tapping through puddles in “Singing in the Rain” (1952), Kelly displayed versatility and athleticism in all the movies he went on to make. The man of many talents contributed as much behind the camera as he did in front of it, choreographing, writing, producing and directing a number of his films. Not only did an array of awards follow his path, but he also made groundbreaking achievements in that he made dance a more popular skill, particularly for men, and forever changed the Hollywood musical with his perspective and style.


By film trailer screenshot (MGM) (An American in Paris trailer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By film trailer screenshot (MGM) (An American in Paris trailer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


The Show Must Go On

Although his career slowed down in the 1960s as the popularity of movie musicals began to fade, Kelly continued performing in TV programs such as the short lived “Going My Way” (1962 – 1963, based on the 1944 Bing Crosby movie) and the variety show “The Funny Side” (1971). He also directed, produced and starred in the TV movie “Jack and the Beanstalk” (1967), which won him an Emmy Award, and hosted the 1970s documentary “That’s Entertainment!” He made his final movie appearance in 1980 in “Xanadu” with Olivia Netwon-John. Besides occasional guest appearances on shows such as “The Muppet Show” and “The Love Boat,” Kelly mostly retired from performing in the 1980s.

Kelly died at his home in Beverly Hills, California on February 2, 1996 after a series of strokes. He will forever be remembered as one of America’s most beloved dancers whose style and vision made a lasting impacting on movies, musicals and dance lovers everywhere.

Mitzi Gaynor, Taina Elg, Kay Kendall & Gene Kelly in Les Girls - publicity still (cropped)

Mitzi Gaynor, Taina Elg, Kay Kendall & Gene Kelly in Les Girls – publicity still (cropped)


Fun Facts:

  • To fix dance’s two-dimensional appearance on film, Kelly’s choreography always had dancers moving toward the camera. The dances also weren’t as long as usually done on stage and were aided by light and color to create the feeling of a third dimension.
  • Kelly always made sure his dancer’s full body was filmed and that the film was cut on a dancer’s turn so the transition would be less obvious.
  • He had a 103 degree fever when he filmed his famous “Singing in the Rain” scene. Kelly dubbed the taps later, as well as the taps of his co-star, Debbie Reynolds.
  • In “Anchors Aweigh,” Kelly danced a duet with Jerry the Mouse (from the cartoon “Tom and Jerry”), who required 24 drawings per second of the dance to come to life. It was the first time anyone danced with an animated character. Kelly’s wife said he often referred to Jerry as his favorite dance partner “because he showed up on time and worked his little tail off.”
  • Kelly took his inspiration not from other forms of dance, but from sports – particularly hockey, his favorite.
  • “On the Town” was the first musical to be shot outside a studio.
  • Both the dancing and the camera movements in “Cover Girl” and “Anchors Aweigh” were synchronized with the beat of the music.


For more fun facts about Gene Kelly, check out this article.


Gene Kelly: The Legacy (An Evening With Patricia Ward Kelly)

Biographer and film historian, Patricia Ward Kelly takes audiences behind the scenes and shares an intimate story of her late husband Gene Kelly, the man who helped create some of the most memorable scenes in film history. This unique, LIVE performance—praised as “a real treat” by Variety—combines rare and familiar film clips, never released audio recordings, memorabilia, and personal insights culled from hours of interviews with her husband. Mrs. Kelly, whose presentation has been described as “mesmerizing,” reveals a very personal side of this American legend and his perspective on the innovative work for which he wished to be remembered.

Gene Kelly: The Legacy “An Evening With Patricia Ward Kelly” is currently touring. Learn more about upcoming shows on the Facebook page or at


Gene Kelly Videos

Of course, there’s plenty of great footage of Gene Kelly to be discovered via YouTube (fleeting though it may be due to copyright infringement). Here he is talking about Singing in the Rain, directing, and movie-making:


Watch Gene in a duet with himself in Cover Girl:


Can’t get enough of Gene Kelly? Follow his fan pages on social media: