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Inside the Brown Bag

By Peg Brown

The Sugar Plum Fairy, Coppelia, and me!

Just as the shed needles of your real Christmas tree turn up in the corners of your home for months after Santa’s visit, so too do specks of glitter and an occasional sequin twinkle from stages in both great and small venues across the country. All are reminders of the iconic symbols and performances of the Christmas season. I too once aspired to twirl gracefully on my toes, clad in sequins, tulle and form fitting tights. That dream began in a small studio in upstate New York.

Using the term “studio” might be a bit of a stretch. It was actually a rather shabby one-story building, complete with deep rose-colored asbestos shingles, and a haphazardly built entranceway that never did receive a coat of paint. But for many aspiring to a role in one of those 1940s musicals or in The Nutcracker, it promised a chance to be a star. The studio was simply a long, narrow, mirrored-lined room with the prerequisite ballet bar, anchored by a small coat room at the entrance and another small room that served as an office—I’m sure there was a bathroom, but I don’t recall ever using one there—probably because it was too difficult to take off the leotard and tights that we were all required to wear.

There were two more constants—Ruth Dumas, never aging owner, instructor and taskmaster always dressed in pale pink leotard, tights, a short dance skirt tied around her waist, and “grown-up” flesh colored tap shoes with heels—and Charles—long suffering pianist for all classes, every day. Charles was a bit of a character, short, stout, glasses, with rolled up shirtsleeves, and pants that were always too long. Charles was physically disabled, had extraordinary patience, and never seemed to tire of playing the same notes for our routines.

The majority of us started at age 6 or 7 and took both tap and ballet (jazz came later) in classes of 15 or more. A few of the very talented or those with more resources took private lessons. We moved from shuffle-ball-change to first position at the bar without a lot of grace, but with dreams of the big stage.

And that big stage for us was located in our high school auditorium which became ours once a year for two nights in June in a recital, complete with make-up, sequins, satin and tulle—two evenings that every father in Ogdensburg faced with dread—including my own! The highlight of the evening was at the end of the second night when Miss Dumas’ students performed “The Big Ballet”—one act from a major production like Giselle or Swan Lake (well, maybe not Swan Lake!) Being chosen for the “Big Ballet” was almost as big of a deal as getting twin-tone tap shoes or being allowed to wear those black fishnet stockings. All three indicated that you had indeed arrived.

I’ve mentioned before that I was a bit chubby, in other words, too heavy to move from ballet slippers into long-coveted toe shoes. However, because of my longevity at the studio (I took dance for 10 years), I think Miss Dumas took pity on me and put me in the chorus for the big ballet one year. My costume was a very tight white satin bodice, trimmed in royal blue sequins, with a long white tulle skirt sprinkled with blue sequined bows. I remember trying on my costume for Dad, as I knew he would never last through a whole night, and he asked me what I was supposed to be. Assuming my best ballet stance, I replied, “I’m a snowflake.” Dad, never to be less than direct, replied: “You look like the whole damn snowstorm!”

The studio did produce some stars. But the person that put stars in my eyes was Dickie Sias—a rather (in hindsight) geeky red head with glasses who had tap dancing feet that were rumored to be insured by Lloyds of London. Really talented people have always moved me—and Dickie moved me right into a huge crush, even though he was years older. I remember standing in the front of my house one late spring night when Dickie rode by in a convertible, dressed in a white sports coat and a pink carnation (straight out of the Marty Robbins song), on his way to the junior prom. I was one very sad adolescent.

I contributed to Miss Dumas’ retirement (or rather my parents did) until I graduated from high school. I never gave up my secret hope that the Rockettes would change their requirements and permit someone shorter than 5’7” and over 100 pounds to join that high-kicking chorus line. I will confess I went to the Rockettes Christmas Show last December—they clearly haven’t loosened their requirements—but secretly I still buy patent leather shoes whenever I get the chance. I am also loath to admit that I actually have considered, momentarily, joining those “never say die” tap dancing baby boomers, age 75 and over, who practice their moves in almost every Florida retirement community.

Author’s Notes:

Current productions of Coppelia are largely based on that which premiered on May 25, 1870, at the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg.

The Nutcracker was given its premiere over 20 years later at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on Sunday, December 18, 1892. According to reviews, the original production was not a success, but the 20-minute suite that Tchaikovsky extracted from the ballet was. The first complete performance outside Russia took place in England in 1934.

The first American complete version of Coppelia was staged in 1939 at the San Francisco ballet.

In 1954 George Balanchine staged a version of The Nutcracker that also incorporated music from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. In 1974 Balanchine also choreographed a version of Coppelia for the New York City Ballet.