“Our goal is to develop each dancer to his or her maximum potential. In many cases this meets and exceeds our greatest dreams. . . . " --Yvonne Mounsey, Director, Westside School of Ballet
The parents and grandparents shifted in their folding chairs, straining for a glimpse of the young dancers. First came the 4- and 5-year-olds in their tiny lavender tutus. Then the teenagers on pointe, tall, swan-like girls with long arms and longer legs gliding effortlessly across the makeshift stage.
And finally, the centerpiece of the show: a dozen women in velvet and chiffon gowns, their hair pulled back with matching ribbons, their pink leather ballet slippers all brand-new.
It was the famous Westside School of Ballet’s June recital--a time to show off students at all levels of training, but it was a debut of sorts for the beginning adults class, which was last included in the prestigious Santa Monica school’s annual event six years ago.
There were more than 80 dancers in all, but for the 13 women age 30 and up who privately call themselves the “Ballet Babes,” the recital belonged to them.
“AND one and two and three and four . . . AND change and six and seven and eight, AND back, AND side, AND front, passe, jete, demi-plie, grand plie . . . Yes? Are you with me here?”
It is the last class before the recital, and by the end of the first hour of the grueling 90-minute session, the dancers are drenched in perspiration. Most of the plastic bottles of water they keep beneath the barre are empty and the dancers rush to the end of the hall to line up for a drink from the fountain between sets.
“Be sure your thigh is up as high as it can possibly be,” coaxes the teacher as the last stragglers return, red-faced and out of breath.
“Oooh! I started this class for some exercise,” confides one dancer in a stage whisper, “but Rebecca expects us to actually do ballet. It’s killing me--but I love it.”
These are not classic Balanchine bodies. They are fuller in the bust, rounder in the hips. They are older, tanner and less underfed, but no less focused.
During the final class break, a few of the dancers begin to hum the music to which they will dance at their recital: “River Song” by Smetana.
“Please can you play it?” they beg their pianist and occasional classmate Daniel Magoun.
“You’re not tired of it yet?” says Daniel, as he shakes his head and begins to play what the corps calls “our song.”
They twirl and sway to the music, smiling dreamily at themselves in the mirrored walls.
“This is a group of strong, successful women,” says Holly Harold, a 32-year-old film producer who started dancing five years ago. “Among us is a former mayor, a dentist, a high-powered attorney, an interior designer, an accountant. We all are used to being in the front of the class, used to being the best. But this recital was a risk. We suddenly had to learn how to do something where we were not the best.”
Along with the arabesques and grand plie, the endless repetitions of releves and passes, they have learned to trust one another and, most of all, themselves. During the few years that they have been dancing together, there have been three divorces, five new careers, two pregnancies and one miscarriage. Attorney Nancy Wolff, 38, helped out with the divorces; Mary Jo Frazier Cambou, 43, a mother of three and family dentist, provided dental advice and, in one case, the deposit on an apartment to a classmate who wanted out of an abusive relationship but had nowhere to go.
With encouragement from the corps, Sharyn Ober, 34, quit a fast-track management career to go back to school for a doctorate in psychology. (She wants to write her dissertation on the Ballet Babes.) Her sister Michelle McMurtrey, 38, is a payroll supervisor who joined the ballet class to lose a little weight and, though she lost more than 30 pounds, says the self-confidence she gained means more.
They have cried on each other’s shoulders, shored each other up, swapped leotards, stitched up tights, shared advice on men, kids, and stretched muscles. When they’re not dancing, they get together for margaritas and root beer floats, potluck dinners, and outings to the ballet, high tea at Huntington Gardens or the occasional Chippendale’s performance.
“It is like no class I’ve ever taught,” says teacher Rebecca Yewell Witjas, 46, who, in addition to choreographing the group’s routines, reads class members’ fortunes with tarot cards.
“The dancing is great for the body, but more than anything, this class is about friendship and about therapy--physical, emotional and spiritual,” says Witjas, a professional dancer and choreographer who also holds a master’s degree from UCLA in dance therapy.
It was for physical therapy that JoAnn Miller joined the class in early 1997. Twenty years ago, when she was 25, Miller was filming a bra commercial that required her to demonstrate the undergarment’s firm hold by bouncing up and down on a trampoline. Midway through the last take, Miller fell off the trampoline and broke her back, ending her career as a performer. Since she joined the class, she says, she is moving better and with less pain than she has in two decades.
“Why do we do this?” says Harold. “Well, none of us has any dream of becoming a professional dancer at this stage of our lives, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is how we are together, and what we’ve become.” Tarot cards and all, this is serious ballet.
The curtain is to go up at 6 p.m., but by 4:15, the Ballet Babes and their one male classmate, Torsten Hoff, already are warming up. Hoff, a 33-year-old computer engineer and ballet hunk, does the lifting for the group.
One of the dancers announces she will probably throw up, but, having said it, feels immediately better and never does get sick. Another, dubbed “the powder princess,” can’t seem to stop throwing baby powder on her feet, legs, back and underarms.
Dani Dave, 34, is doing the splits, first this way, then that. Although she is considered the class astrologer, it was unanimously agreed she would not make any forecasts for the recital.
“There are some things we just don’t want to know right now,” says one nervous Gemini. “All we can do is our best. We just have to believe it will all turn out right. Now, tell me again why I agreed to do this?”
Suddenly, it’s showtime. Wolff, the lawyer, is too pregnant to perform, so she has assumed the duties of backstage manager.
“Ladies,” she shouts, “it is time to stop talking! I need everybody to line up at the back door. Now.”
The music begins and the ballerinas sweep out of the wings onto center stage.
As they offer their unique wood-nymph interpretation of the Smetana piece, Hoff darts about leaping over the women and then lifting them one by one with seeming ease. A few he lifts over his shoulder, the smallest one--5-foot-2, 97-pound Jeanine Andrisano--Hoff suspends above his head, others he hoists into mid-air and lets go.
They land lightly, as if being tossed onto a cloud; their faces upturned, their smiles angelic.
After the show, the women run breathless back to the dressing room where their teacher reports that Yvonne--that’s Yvonne Mounsey, director of the ballet school and a former soloist under George Balanchine in the New York City Ballet--liked their performance.
“Yvonne liked it? She really liked it?” one of the dancers squeals.
Twice during their near-flawless nine-minute performance, the Ballet Babes were interrupted by applause from an audience that had come to see little girls and saw accomplished, gracefully grown women instead.
No wonder Yvonne liked it.