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Ballet lives on through teaching others

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By MEGAN JAMES

ADDISON COUNTY — For ballerina Patty Smith, who at 57 still dances with her Leap of Faith Dance Company, teaching and choreographing add up to more than a coda to her life’s performance; they are the resolution to a tune she’s been humming for more than 50 years.

The same seems true of veteran ballerina Barbara Elias, who after a glamorous career performing with companies like the Boston Ballet is passing the torch to the next generation at the Middlebury Dance Center.

“Every dancer eventually has to teach,” Smith, who lives in Whiting, said. “Not just for finances, but to carry on the legacy. You have to.”

Some professional ballerinas perform well into their 40s and 50s, but many shift their focus around age 35 to teaching younger dancers.

“A lot of it is the body God gives you,” said Elias, who took part in her last professional performance in the 1990s. “You never know what things in life will make you stumble. Injury will take you out. You just have to move on and do other things. Sometimes people just plain get worn out.”

Smith and Elias are both far from worn out.

As a child, listening to classical music, Smith experienced a kind of out-of-body ecstasy, she said.

“I remember very clearly wanting to communicate this to people, to tell people how beautiful the music was, but I had no language,” she said. “Experiencing it myself was just so incredibly lonely.”

So she learned to dance.

By the time she was 12, she was performing with the Boston Ballet, which in the early ’60s was still a relatively small regional company.  At 19, she took “the ultimate test,” she said, and put herself on the audition line for a union job in New York City.

About 1,000 women showed up at what they called a “cattle call” — the audition was open to anyone. The scene was pure chaos, Smith said. The dancers were divided into groups, leaving about 50 on the stage at once. The directors would teach a little routine and the dancers would look through each other’s legs to try and learn it.

Then they would perform in batches of 10. If a dancer was rejected, she would leave right away, if she were accepted for that round, she would stay.

“You stay and you stay and you stay,” Smith said. “And then you’re told you have the job.”

Smith got the job — more specifically, she got her union card, which was essential to break into the New York scene — on her very first audition.

She danced on Broadway for five years, but never found the ecstasy she had experienced as a child. So she passed up an offer to dance in Stephen Schwartz’s “Magic Show” and moved to San Francisco, where she co-founded a modern dance company. But she didn’t find it there either.

It wasn’t until 20 years ago that she put her finger on just what she had been looking for. Smith started teaching young dancers and finally, she was able to communicate the feeling she had had as a child, overwhelmed by the beauty of classical music.

There was nothing profound about the way Elias began to dance. Growing up in Boston, she was just a kid with nothing to do, she said. Her older sister had started taking dance classes and the kids across the street were dancing, too. So when it became clear to her parents young Barbara needed something to keep her busy and out of trouble, dance was a simple answer.

“My sister ended up hating dance and I turned out loving it,” Elias said. “It was very innocuous; it just happened.”

By age 12, she was performing with the Boston Ballet, though not at the same time as Smith. That’s when George Balanchine, the famous dancer and choreographer who founded New York City’s School of American Ballet, came to a performance and noticed Elias’s talent. At his urging, she auditioned for the School of American Ballet, and got in.

She spent the next year studying in New York City, but she didn’t grow an inch that year, so she was kicked out.

“They expect you to be a certain height,” she said. “But it wasn’t my year to grow. I was a little itty-bitty thing.”

So Elias returned to the Boston Ballet.

At 16, her tiny stature started working in her favor; she was shipped off to Europe, where they liked smaller dancers, she said, and she performed in England and Stuttgart, Germany.

Her blossoming career took her to San Francisco and Hawaii, where she recalled performing seventh-inning lifts with the Honolulu baseball team. She danced for the U.S. Senate, and even for the Queen of Tonga, a 450-pound woman flanked by equally imposing ladies-in-waiting.

But dancing wasn’t always so glamorous. For all the thrill of an opening performance, there was an equal sense of disappointment when it was all over.

“You’ve ridden this high and then you crash after,” Elias said. “The curtain went up, and you did it. The curtain went down — OK, now what?”

And when it comes down to it, it’s only a job, she said. “Any given day you can wake up and think, ‘Oh, God, I hate doing those damn pliés!’ or ‘One more arabesque and I’m going to throw up!’”

Now the Middlebury resident works full-time at a dental clinic in Burlington, and she said she feels the same sense of routine and let down when her patients walk away after oral surgery.

“You’ve worked so hard to get them healthy, and then they walk away and they’re healthy,” she said. “Now what?”

But in the ballet classes she teaches every evening in Middlebury, she said finds a sense of peace. She treats those classes like she once treated performing.

“My hope is that I took whoever was in the audience out of their world for a short time, and they went home feeling better, and they had something to think about,” she said. “And if that’s the case — because you’ll never know — then the day is a success.”

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