Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Curtain Call

I've always especially loved this time of year...
the time spent with family, the lights, the music, the search for the perfect gift, the joy that beams from a child's face when they see Santa. 
But for me, the holiday season has always been marked by dreams of Snow Queens and Sugar Plum Fairies. 

For over a decade I was involved in various productions of "The Nutcracker," first as a tiny polichinelle scurrying out from under Mother Ginger's skirt when I was about five years old.  The classic Christmas ballet was part of my holiday tradition until I graduated from high school, and by then I had danced almost every role in one capacity or another.  
I had the opportunity to work with some of the country's best-known choreographers, dancers, and teachers.  But I can only credit one of them with truly shaping my life.
Irine Fokine died Sunday night after a long battle with cancer.  
Her obituary will tell you that she was 88 years old, but the Irine Fokine I knew would never reveal her age.  
To anybody.  
She drove a flashy convertible, always had her makeup on, and loved to wear fur coats in the winter. Though her feet were battered and bruised from their years in pointe shoes, her long blond hair was always kept in a perfect bun and her form-fitting outfits never failed to show off her perfect dancer's body.
She spent her mornings swimming laps at the local YMCA and her afternoons teaching lessons at her dance studio.
Miss Fokine, as her students called her, was a legend in the ballet world.  
She was the daughter of prima ballerina Alexandra Fedorova, and the niece of famed choreographer Michael Fokine.  Her godmother was legendary dancer Anna Pavlova. 
Miss Fokine created dozens of ballets and danced with Radio City Music Hall and USO.
She was also a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, and a great-great-grandmother. 
In August Miss Fokine closed her studio in Ridgewood, NJ, where aspiring dancers shed blood, sweat, and tears (LITERALLY) for over half a century. 
Late summer and early autumn were always the busiest times of year at the studio.  It would all start with "Nutcracker" auditions, with Miss Fokine determining which role each student would play in the ballet.  Then rehearsals would begin.  For months, Miss Fokine's studio would be bustling with dancers of all ages practicing their "Nutcracker" routines over, and over, and over, until every step was just perfect.  
That's the way it worked with Miss Fokine. 
She had a no-nonsense attitude that bordered on frightening.  
OK, it didn't border on frightening.  The woman was flat-out scary. 
She could make Rambo cry. 
She once chastised me in front of an entire room full of girls because I wore a hot pink leotard to class.  Back then Miss Fokine's rules allowed for her students to stray from the uniform black leotard and pink tights once they turned 14, and I was so excited to be able to wear something a little more mature to class now that I had reached this significant milestone.  
Well, apparently hot pink was too mature for Miss Fokine, who asked me why I felt the need to stand out from the rest of the crowd as if I were someone special.  
Point taken.  Burn the hot pink leotard. I am NOT special.
This is how Miss Fokine ran her studio. 
She was in charge and if you didn't like it, don't let the door hit you on the way out.
She would yell -- and I mean get in your face and YELL -- if you wore too much makeup, didn't show up on time, messed up a routine, or quit before the music ended... even if you had a fever and were on the verge of vomiting. 
The best was when she'd curse at you in Russian... classic Fokine.  You didn't know whether to laugh or cry.  
In the end, you definitely shed a tear or two. 
And God forbid you ever talked back.  That was just not an option in her studio.  
The worst thing you could ever do was talk back.  
Respect was a pretty big thing with Miss Fokine. 
If you disrespected her, her studio, or her strict and rigid style of teaching, you were a goner. 
For all that can be said about her feisty, drill sergeant persona, Miss Fokine taught her students many of life's most important lessons. 
She instilled discipline, character, strength, independence, courage, and teamwork.  She passed down a desire to strive for excellence and to reach beyond what was physically, mentally, and emotionally possible, all the while showing us what it was like to be so passionate about something that it consumed you.
I'll never forget Irine Fokine... and I'll always look back with fondness at the time I spent with her.  
After six years under her tutelage I learned a lot about dance...
"It's not about you, it's about your audience."  
This phrase was often punctuated with, "Cmon ya big dummy, don't you get it?" 
But I learned more from Miss Fokine about life and how I wanted to live mine.
"Why are you so afraid to fall? You're only five-feet tall! It's not like you have far to go before you hit the ground! Suck it up and take a chance."
This is how Miss Fokine expressed her love for her students... 
She was a mother to us all.
The strictest, most stringent mother you could ever have.
She was brutally honest and rarely affectionate. 
But she loved each and every one of us.
I'm glad I got to see her one last time when she held an alumni gala performance of "The Nutcracker" to celebrate her production's 50th anniversary. 
This will be the first time in 52 years that Miss Fokine's "Nutcracker" won't fill a theater with the sounds of children cheering as the toy soldiers battle the mice and giggling as Mother Ginger shimmies across the stage.  
It truly is the end of an era for all of us who were fortunate enough to study with her.
But I know she's at peace now... dancing in heaven, eating marzipan without worrying about the calories, and telling the angels to mind their posture and point their toes. 

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