As a child, I spent my first few years studying dance in recreational types of schools around the USA (my parents moved around a lot for my father’s job). Around the time I was eight, it became evident to my parents that it was time to find me a better training environment – a school with a professional ballet training program. In other words – all work and no play. It was also time for me to change my terminology. Instead of telling friends and relatives that you DO ballet, you told them that you STUDY ballet. Changing your terminology was all part of the mental transition – a transition that took you from the ever-changing carefree childhood whims to one of serious focused training. All the professional schools near our home were either run by or staffed by escapees from the then Iron Curtain countries – countries in Eastern Europe that were under the influence of Communist Russia. All of these people had a few things in common – they all rambled endlessly on about the art of ballet – they all lacked a sense of humor – and they all spoke English with such heavy accents that it was practically impossible to understand them. My first professional dance teacher was a Hungarian named Stefan.
Stefan was the main teacher at a school near Washington D.C. The Director of the school was a mild-mannered American woman. Classes at the school were extremely regimented. The door to the studio remained closed at all times and no lack of concentration was tolerated. Our parents were never allowed to watch the classes because the staff felt that their presence would distract us from our work. They also seemed to feel that any reference to our “normal” lives would be detrimental to the development of our artistic temperament. Personally I think parents weren’t allowed to watch because I don’t think the staff wanted any witnesses to the abuse they heaped on us. All the students were required to wear Russian styled cotton uniforms, along with bare legs, white socks, white shoes and matching headbands. Older students graduated from bare legs to pink tights and pink shoes. At the beginning of the school year, each child was measured for their custom made class uniform – your uniform for the next nine months. I learned a very valuable lesson about costume fittings after my first measurement session – NEVER, NEVER, NEVER hold your stomach in when you have a costume fitting. Seriously – I mean it – don’t do it. During my first uniform measurement I sucked in my breath to create a small waist. The result was an entire year of being red-faced and in agony from wearing an oxygen depriving corset of cotton. The next year during my uniform fitting, I inflated myself up like a blowfish and the result was a wonderfully comfortable garment that had room to grow into.
Despite the regimental environment, I was totally thrilled with the new school. It produced good professional dancers. I soon discovered that there was one small problem – Stefan was a raving lunatic. The man didn’t yell – he screeched. He called us names, he belittled us, he threw chairs, he pulled his hair out and worst of all – he hit. He hit all the time. A hit on the leg – “straighten it”. A smack on the butt – “get it in”. A poke in the stomach – “suck it in”. Sometimes a blow would send you flying across the room, landing in a heap on the floor. You’d look up at him stunned and he would say, “You weren’t paying attention.” I was terrified. Whenever he would pass us in the hall, we would immediately stand up, curtsey and greet him. Failure to do this meant another slap – unless of course a parent was present. I took great comfort in knowing that my mother was waiting for me on the other side of the studio door. I figured that as long as she was in the building – Stefan couldn’t murder me.
I reached a point where I couldn’t take any more of Stefan’s abuse. After endless begging and crying scenes, my mother finally relented and had me transferred to the Director’s classes. In my opinion – life definitely improved. The Director was such a gentle and nurturing woman – never an angry word for her students. Soon after my transfer, Stefan stopped my mother in the lobby and demanded loudly, “Why your daughter no like me?” To this day, I can still see my mother shaking in nervousness as she faced off with him. Then she stuck out her chin defiantly and said, “You frighten her.” Stefan’s eyebrows rose. He glared a moment at my mother and then strode off mumbling under his breath. After my transfer, I began to calm down. Ballet classes were enjoyable again. Things were going great when disaster struck – the Director decided to take a vacation – for the entire summer – AND Stefan was going to take over all of her classes. I spent weeks begging my mother to allow me to go to another school. I just knew he was going to single me out for special torture because I had insulted him by getting transferred out of his classes. My mother reminded me that this was the best school in the area and that I was the one who wanted to be a dancer. The “you’re the one who wanted to dance, not me” argument was always a tough one to fight. She had me there. And then she’d give me the usual parental advice of “Don’t let him get to you.” Do parents really believe this stuff? Honestly – what child has ever been able to follow that advice? They’re children – you know – ruled more by emotions than rational thought. At the time I just figured that my mother was going to feel really bad when they found my poor broken body lying in the parking lot after having been thrown from the studio window.
My first class with Stefan was to begin. I quietly slipped into the studio behind a group of larger girls, praying that their bulk would hide me. Standing at the barre, I held my breath and kept my eyes down – using that old adage of not looking an attack dog in the eyes. Stefan didn’t say a word to me. So far, so good. The class started. Everything was going fine. As I began to calm down and breathe easier, I glanced over at Stefan. His face was turning red. He was going to blow. As the panic began to rise in my chest, he strode over to me and then knocked the girl in front of me to the floor and stood over her yelling intelligible English. Then he turned to me who was cringing into the barre, smiled and said, “It’s OK Debbie darling, it’s nothing.” We had reached a truce. He didn’t yell at me and I stayed in his classes – even after the summer session.
One day, I was really messing up – to the point that Stefan could no longer contain his frustration. His eyes bugged out as he glared at me. His body visibly rocked back and forth as he tried to control his breathing and his temper. Suddenly he whirled around and stomped out of the studio. Within moments, he returned with a pad of paper and a pencil, which he promptly threw at my feet. “Now you stupid girl, if you have no brains to remember steps, you write down.” He began to rattle off the names of the steps in the exercise. I quickly grabbed the paper and pencil from the floor, fumbled the items in my nervousness and dropped the pencil which rolled towards Stefan’s feet. I dove for it while I ripped open the pad of paper. Stefan stared at me coldly and then repeated the exercise. I started to write down the first word and then stopped. Tears started to fill my eyes. Stefan couldn’t take anymore. “What?” he screamed, “What?” I looked up at him with the tears running down my face and my lips quivering, “I don’t know how to spell what you just said.” There was a moment of silence. Then Stefan let out a guttural scream. He grabbed the pad and pencil from my hands and threw them across the room. Stefan didn’t say anything to me the rest of the class but I could hear him muttering under his breath every time he passed me. I’m sure the man breathed as big a sigh of relief as I did when my parents announced that we were moving to another state. I’m not sure that we would have survived each other.