When I saw the topic for November’s Circle Time over at Dance Advantage — Best Dance Gift EVER — I scanned my memory seeking some piece of dance bric-a-brac that might have meant… something?
But, of course, the most meaningful gifts rarely come in a box stamped: “Made in China.” No. The most meaningful gifts are the words, thoughts, and experiences shared with those we love.
And then, it hit me like a ton of bricks.
I was 15, nearing the end of my sophomore year of high school. I had studied ballet with a lovely British woman named Patsy for the previous two years. She dyed her silver hair a vibrant auburn, she wore long dance skirts in class, and loved the color purple. She had danced in Boston in her younger years (based on the timing she would have been there before Boston Ballet’s inception, so I’m not sure where exactly she danced… drat me for having been an unworldly teenager who didn’t think to retain this information!). She didn’t put up with nonsense, yet she was kind and generous, creative and passionate, and served to fuel my love for ballet in a geographic area that otherwise didn’t pay it much never-mind.
I’m not sure if I was aware of this, but she was planning to cease teaching our ballet classes at the end of the school year. This may explain the timing, something that otherwise would have been expected at graduation or some such. She came by my house one day (I might be wrong on this detail, but I do know it was something given in private) and gave me an envelope. It contained a card and a pendant on a silver chain. The pendant was beautiful, but the true gift, and the part that stuck with me all these years, was the story behind it and the rest of the words in the card (written in purple ink on a Degas notecard).
I am hesitant about posting the entire contents of the letter — it is a personal exchange and the words are not my own — and yet I can find no way to summarize the contents in a way that accurately captures the meaning or that doesn’t come across as self-aggrandizing, so here goes:
You and H—– are my most faithful and responsive students. So, as we come to the end of another year and another recital, I wish to give you something that’s been meaningful to me in my “dance life.”
This little pendant was given to me (34 years ago), by a wonderful group of Boston community dance students with whom I worked for 3 years (in those days, we were all so poor). Since 1960, I have worn the pendant a lot + always treasured it.
I’ve always thought that when we dance, unlike other forms of expression, we are using our bodies to interpret life in its many facets — not an easy thing to do, as every ballet student knows– I have always noticed that there is a marvellous discipline about the way you learn, but most of all there is a great sparkle and joy about the way you move and dance.
So, like your dancing, I wish your life may always sparkle with joy.
With great affection,
The letter was concise, contained neatly on the inside of the notecard, and yet it spoke volumes… about respect and tradition, our mission as dancers, and what we each bring to the art. I have reread it many times over the years and it still serves to inspire me. Along with it she entrusted me with a token of her past and that of her students to carry forward, a baton in the grand relay of life.
As a postscript, though she did give up teaching all of us except “H—–” for a time, the lamentations of the rest of us must have gotten back to her. She ended up resuming her ballet classes later the following year and choreographed my senior piece for the recital. I think she retired for good shortly thereafter.
And as a post-postscript, when I originally drafted this post I thought to myself how sad I was to have lost touch over the years with my dear teacher. I ran into her occasionally when I was in college, but the last time I had any communication with her was well over ten years ago. I knew that she would have to be in her 80s by now (with the attendant thoughts about morbidity and mortality)… I did a bit of quick sleuthing and found that the old address still seemed to be good, so before I could give it a second thought I dashed off a letter and popped it in the mail not sure what (if anything) to expect in return. Imagine my delight when a week or so later I arrived home from rehearsal to find an envelope in my mailbox with that familiar handwriting on it! Even more delighted to learn that my senior picture is still on display in her house and her love for ballet lives on. She suggested getting together to go see a ballet together in the spring and I do hope that we can arrange it. I have so many questions I want to ask and I want to just sit and absorb…
And when I do, I will wear her pendant.