David Bruce: Dance Anecdotes

Dancer Agnes de Mille auditioned for impresario Billy Rose early in her career. She danced for hours in different costumes and wigs, she paid the accompanist and the dresser, and her effort was immense; however, no job offer materialized after the audition. A little later, Ms. de Mille’s choreography for Rodeo was a hit when it premiered at the Metropolitan Opera on Oct. 16, 1942, and Mr. Rose asked about her, “Where has she been? Who discovered her? She can’t have just sprung to this eminence from nowhere. She must have been somewhere. Where did she hide herself?”

Mrs. Haskell, the mother of ballet critic Arnold Haskell, enjoyed watching ballet practice at the London dance studio of Princess Seraphine Astafieva. Often she rewarded dancers with boxes of chocolates. Because young dance student Patrick Kay, who later became world famous as Anton Dolin, knew that Mrs. Haskell enjoyed watching the circle of pirouettes with which Ms. Astafieva’s students ended the class, he sometimes asked Mrs. Haskell what she would give him if he danced two circles of pirouettes instead of just one. In that way, he was able to earn many boxes of chocolates.

Alicia Alonso and Igor Youskevitch were a great ballet dance team during the 1950s, but even they occasionally ran into problems. While dancing together in the Black Swan pas de deux, Mr. Youskevitch became overly athletic in his lifts of Ms. Alonso, so she complained to him in an aside at the end of their dance that he had handled her as if she were a sack of potatoes. This image was so different from that of the swan she was supposed to be that they startled giggling and were just saved from ruining the drama of the dance by the fall of the curtain.

Rudolf Nureyev valued his freedom. In 1961, he was on tour with the Kirov Ballet in France, when he was suddenly told at the airport that although the rest of the Kirov Ballet would fly to London, he was to fly to Russia. Sensing that if he returned to Russia, he would never again be allowed to dance in the West, Mr. Nureyev immediately approached two French policemen in the airport and demanded their protection. After defecting to the West, Mr. Nureyev began making ballet history with such partners as Margot Fonteyn.

Ballet dancers have tricks to make them forget how much their feet hurt. During a ballet class, David Howard once told Leslie Browne while she was doing a series of pirouettes, “This is where you imagine you have a huge piece of gum in your mouth and you push it against the roof of your mouth with your tongue as hard as you can, hoping to push the gum through.” Ms. Browne was confused by this comment, until Mr. Howard told her, “Then you will forget how much your feet hurt.”

Sallie Wilson used to be a principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre. She began to study dance through an accident. A musician, she was playing in a school orchestra during a ballet performance when the lights in the orchestra pit went out. This meant she had to play from memory, and instead of looking at the music, she was able to watch the ballet performance. She liked what she saw, so she began to study ballet.

Ballet dancer Maria Tallchief spoke her mind at times. During a rehearsal, choreographer George Balanchine was changing steps, as he was wont to do. Of course, this can make knowing what to do next very confusing. André Eglevsky turned, which was the old step, instead of lifting, which was the new step — and Ms. Tallchief fell on her face. As Mr. Eglevsky put it later, “She got up and looked back at me and was blunt.”

Anyone who dances the roles of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake must be an expert ballerina. In Act 3, the ballerina playing Odile does 32 fouettés — for one fouetté, she makes a complete rotation on her left toe while her right leg kicks in and out at waist height. Cynthia Gregory danced Odette/Odile for 20 years and never missed one of the the 32 fouettés she had to dance each time.

Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell were ballet partners who thought alike. Shortly after their book, Sibley and Dowell, was published, they met in a restaurant. Both were carrying white bags, both were carrying copies of their book, both had thought about not bringing copies of their book, and both made the same apology for bringing copies of their book.

Fred Astaire was once staying at the home of Jock Whitney, and he asked Mr. Whitney to teach him a new dance called the Sluefoot. Big mistake. Mr. Whitney wasn’t able to get any sleep that night. Mr. Astaire stayed up all night practicing the Sluefoot, and his bedroom was located directly above Mr. Whitney’s.

Fires have cut down careers in show business. Emma Livry was rehearsing Le Papillon, choreographed by her mentor Marie Taglioni (1804-1884), when she was killed after her costume caught on fire. Fanny Cerito (1821-1899?) quit dancing after a burning piece of scenery fell on her during rehearsal.

Ballerina Alicia Markova became a celebrity when she danced Giselle in New York. During the performance, her foot was broken, but she continued dancing. Ms. Markova once told Agnes de Mille, “I continued the whole solo variation, little hops on pointe and all. Think of it: right across the stage on one toe on a fractured foot.”

Marie Camargo (1710-1770) knew how to seize opportunity. A mere member of a dance ensemble, she wished to be a star. At a concert, a male dancer named Dumoulin failed to respond to his cue, so Ms. Camargo left the ensemble, went to the front of the stage, and improvised a solo which was enthusiastically applauded.

As a very young dance pupil — 14 years old — Margot Fonteyn (then known as Margaret Hookham) showed much ambition. When she was told that Ms. Pavlova was the “greatest dancer in the world,” she replied, “Then I will be the second greatest.”

According to professional dancers, they always suffer from aches and pains as a result of their profession. Rudolph Nureyev once told Peter Martins, “If I don’t ache and pain, I don’t know I’m alive.”

© 2016, David Bruce, All Rights Reserved

David Bruce has written lots of collections of anecdotes, plus other books. Take a look at the list here:


Most of the anecdotes are funny; some are thought provoking.

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