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.