Dancing through the Pain—Tanaquil LeClercq

Spring has arrived, bringing a feeling of hope and rebirth as flowers bloom and trees put out new leaves. It is a good time to think about people who have also managed to find a rebirth and hope after serious illness or loss. One of the most inspiring stories I’ve heard recently is about a dancer who overcame the assault of an illness that would have destroyed the lives of many others—Tanaquil LeClercq.

Born in Paris in 1929, the daughter of an American mother and a French father who was a poet and writer, Tanaquil was named after an Etruscan queen. When she was three years old, the family moved to New York. As a child, Tanaquil attended the French Lycée and began to study ballet. She won a scholarship competition at the School of American Ballet where she attracted the attention of its founder, George Balanchine.

Tanaquil LeClercq

By the time she was fifteen years old, Tanaquil began to appear in early Balanchine pieces at the Ballet Society, which later became the City Ballet. It was the beginning of a spectacular career during a time when ballet was becoming an important part of the American cultural world.  Balanchine, who had been born in Russia, and had experience in both classical ballet and in theatrical revues in London, developed a new style of ballet combining elements of traditional and modern dancing. He created a number of ballets for Tanaquil whose skills exemplified those needed in his new ballets. In 1952, he and Tanaquil were married. Both of their careers flourished.

Tanaquil LeClercq

Besides dancing in many of Balanchine’s most famous works, including “Symphony in C”, “Western Symphony” and “La Valse”, LeClercq also danced in many of the ballets choreographed by Jerome Robbins who also became a close friend. One of his most spectacular pieces was “Afternoon of a Faun” in which LeClercq dominated the stage with her long, graceful body and startling dancing.

During the 1950s, LeClercq toured with the City Ballet in America and Europe. It was on a tour in 1956, that polio found her. Although the Salk polio vaccine had become available in 1955 and most of the ballet troupe received the vaccine before leaving the U.S. on their tour, LeClercq delayed her shot saying she would get it after the flight. It was in Denmark that polio struck and LeClercq suddenly found herself placed in an Iron Lung.

The first two years after catching polio are the crucial time for regaining strength and mobility. Balanchine and LeClercq worked tirelessly together to revive the muscles that had been affected by polio. Balanchine devised special movements and exercise to restore Tanequil’s legs. He encouraged her to place her feet on his as he walked or danced, hoping that would allow her muscles to regain their strength. Being a spiritual man, he also prayed. Nothing helped. LeClercq gradually regained strength in her arms and upper body, but she was never again able to use her legs.

Both Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, LeClercq’s closest colleagues, worked hard to keep up her spirits. Robbins wrote her a letter every day during the first year of her illness. But recovery from polio is painfully slow and incomplete and as time went on, LeClercq had to struggle on by herself. She and Balanchine divorced in 1969. And gradually she and Robbins drifted further apart.

The two men continued their careers and LeClercq worked hard to develop a new one for herself. She learned how to use her arms and upper body to demonstrate dance steps and she began to coach the dancers at the City Ballet. Her biggest opportunity came when Arthur Mitchell invited her to work with his newly established Dance Theater of Harlem. There she taught classes for more than a decade and during that time she also wrote and published two books.

Although her magnificent career as a dancer was cut cruelly short, Tanaquil LeClercq built a satisfying new life defying the tragedy of polio. In 1998, City Ballet opened its 50th anniversary season with a tribute to her. LeClercq attended in her wheelchair. She died two years later at the age of 71.

LeClerc’s life has been celebrated in a documentary film “Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil LeClercq” (2013) which includes archival footage of her dancing as well as interviews with several people who knew her. The film can be streamed on Kanopy and other streaming services. Watching this film will allow you to spend an evening with a woman who was an amazing dancer and a gallant spirit.

Dancing away from the daily news

In recent weeks I often feel as though I am drowning in news from all sources—breathless voices from radio, TV and newspapers both print and online insist on telling me the latest tweet or thoughtless comment about what is going on. In self-defense I’ve resolved not to pay attention to any news that pops up after the PBS Newshour ends in the evening . Everything else can wait for morning.

Mariinsky Theatre

This resolution leaves me more time to watch some of the riches I can stream on my TV, watching performances that I never had a chance to see in person. My favorites are ballets, pure art without the intervention of words or arguments. It is a tremendous relief to switch on Amazon Prime and watch dances that were performed at the Mariinsky theater and other famous locations. It is another world right in my own living room.

Fanny Elssler

All of this reminds me of how long it took for ballet to make its way to America and what it meant when it finally arrived. And one of my favorite American heroes, Margaret Fuller, played a part in welcoming the European art. There is a well-known story that when Margaret and her friend Ralph Waldo Emerson went to see Fanny Elssler, one of the first ballerinas to tour the country, Emerson turned to Margaret and said: “This is not dancing, it is poetry ; ” to which she replied, ” No, Waldo, it is religion!”

Those comments make a good story, but unfortunately they are most likely untrue. Charles Capper, Fuller’s most respected biographer, tell us that Fuller and Emerson did not attend a ballet performance together, so the story must be regarded as just casual gossip. What it does reveal, however, is that the leading American writers and intellectuals were fascinated when they had a chance to view ballet. And who was the woman who introduced this art? Fanny Elssler, an Austrian dancer who came to America in 1840 and traveled across the country giving performances for a year and a half.

Fanny had been born into a musical family in Austria. Her father was a copyist and valet to Hayden and two of her brothers were musicians. Her sister Therese was also trained as a dancer and the two young girls frequently performed together. Therese grew to a height considered to be abnormal in those days—5 feet, 6 inches—so she could dance male parts when accompanying Fanny.

As frequently happened, the attractive young dancers attracted powerful older men as supporters and lovers. Fanny eventually had two children, a boy and a girl, who were boarded with friendly families until they were old enough to join their mother. I have to wonder sometimes what staid Americans like Emerson and his circle would have thought if they had known one of their admired artists had unacknowledged children. And I sometimes wonder what female artists would have done in that long-ago time before the Me-too movement had started if they had had the freedom to reject the attentions of wealthy patrons who assumed all female dancers would welcome their attentions.

But that did not happen. The dancers kept on dancing until they retired, as Fanny Elssler did in 1845, leaving behind a number of American and European fans who continued to support ballet as well as the other arts. During the late 19th century Americans, who had learned of many of these arts through performers who visited from Europe, developed their own artists and the inspiration began to flow in a two-way direction between this country and the rest of the world. Now, thanks to technology, we can watch performances from all over the world whenever we need a break from the endless chatter of today’s life. I highly recommend it.

Mariinsky ballet