Trending

As Madame Olga, Former ABT Dancer Michael Cusumano Becomes Two Teachers in One

Ballet instructor Michael Cusumano has a secret identity that even his mother didn't encounter until recently.

When he's not teaching at Pace University or editing funny videos on YouTube, he's transforming into his alter ego Madame Olga, a feisty Russian ballet star who claimed part of his brain and a lot of his closet.


Cusumano, who goes by "Mikey," is soft-spoken and often wears T-shirts and backward baseball caps. Outrageous Olga hasn't worn the same outfit twice in two years, as seen in her frequent posts on Instagram. "If you have anything eccentric, give it to me," he says. Signature looks include turbans, skirts, and accessories collected from friends, family, and thrift shops.

"I'm not a drag queen, but I do let Olga take over my body," Cusumano explains one evening after teaching class as Mikey in New York. "Becoming her is a specific process that I take seriously as an actor. Once I'm her, I leave my apartment, and I don't break character out of respect for her."



Cusumano felt nervous when his mother met Madame Olga for the first time, but they got along like comrades. In fact, his mom contributes to Olga's fashion arsenal and takes video to promote Madame's brand.

Cusumano knows a lot about intense ballet personalities. At only 15, he joined American Ballet Theatre as the youngest male dancer in the company's history. Every day, he would commute to New York City from Long Island and dance from 10 am until evening. The job took him around the world but also exposed him to adult situations when he was only a teenager. Similar to Madame Olga, Cusumano was a prodigy. He could turn triple pirouettes at age 6 and performed a lead role at 16. His talent meant he had to grow up quickly.

"Back at ABT in the 90s," he says, "I was always fascinated with the Russian ballerinas—their passionate interactions with their partners and the pride they took in their ballet culture. It was the best education. Russian dancers have some of the most prestigious training, but I was always silly as a kid, so I just couldn't help but imitate them out of admiration. As I was imitating, a name emerged."



Madame Olga more fully took shape when he transitioned from ballet into musical theater. During Cusumano's seven years in Chicago on Broadway, Madame Olga couldn't contain herself. Each night when Hunyak performed her "Hungarian Rope Trick," Madame Olga gave life lessons to castmates. It was "Olga's Moment." Dancers in the show crowded around the stairwell to hear words of wisdom. "This went on for three years," he says. "Olga would talk and talk and talk, while Hunyak was getting hanged."

While Broadway taught him how to be in the moment, Cusumano felt he needed to express himself in a different way. "Being told what to do so much as a child in dance translated into problems in my relationships and a feeling of being stuck," he says.

Playing Madame Olga felt therapeutic. "Ballet gave me a specific skill," he says. "But Madame Olga helped me develop within." Soon Olga, whom he describes as Anna Pavlova reincarnated, had a following on YouTube and Instagram. Through conversations with friends, he realized Olga might want to share her knowledge. When the owner of Ballet Arts invited her to teach class, Olga got her big break.

"It was like my prayers were answered," he says. "Olga's been teaching for more than two years now. Texas loves her. Mexico loves her." Based on the positive response, Cusumano envisions Madame Olga spreading her message of love and freedom to ballet companies around the globe.

Outside his busy teaching schedule at Pace, Broadway Dance Center, and various other schools in the New York area, Cusumano offers pop-up Olga classes once a week. He announces the location through her website or social media. "There's no one doing what I do, teaching as a character," says Cusumano.

These pop-up classes tend to represent all levels, from ballet enthusiast to Broadway gypsy. Students "get" the joke and work hard with more ease than they might in other classes.

Madame Olga teaches serious technique, emphasizing that arms are part of the back, not extra appendages that flail around without support. She also lets students shout out words and be ridiculous. Sometimes she plays the piano or sings, but Cusumano never wants his classes to become "the Madame Olga Show."

"She wants her students to get what they need that day," says Cusumano.

One teenage girl wrote to Madame Olga explaining that ballet often makes her feel discouraged she can't reach perfection. Yet Madame Olga helps her access the best part of herself.

"I love helping young people," he says, tearing up. "So does Madame."

Higher Ed
Charles Anderson (center) in his (Re)current Unrest. Photo by Kegan Marling, courtesy of UT Austin

Given the long history of American choreographers who have threaded activism into their work—Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Donald McKayle, Joanna Haigood, Bill T. Jones, Jo Kreiter, to name a few—it's perhaps surprising that collegiate dance has offered so little in the way of training future generations to do the same.

Until now, that is. Within the last three years, two master's programs have cropped up, each the first of its kind: Ohio University's MA in community dance (new this fall), and the University of Texas at Austin's dance and social justice MFA, which emerged from its existing MFA program in 2018. These two programs join the University of San Francisco's undergraduate performing arts and social justice major, with a concentration in dance, which has been around since 2000.

Keep reading... Show less
Teacher Voices
Getty Images

As many dance teachers begin another semester of virtual teaching, it is time to acknowledge the fact that virtual classes aren't actually accessible to all students.

When schools and studios launched their virtual dance programs at the beginning of the pandemic, many operated under the assumption that all their students would be able to take class online. But in reality, lack of access to technology and Wi-Fi is a major issue for many low-income students across the country, in many cases cutting them off from the classes and resources their peers can enjoy from home.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Awards

Who knew that a virtual awards ceremony could bring our community together in such a powerful way?

Last night, we celebrated the annual Dance Teacher Awards, held virtually for the first time. Though it was different from what we're used to, this new setting inspired us to get creative in celebrating our six extraordinary honorees. In fact, one of the most enlivening parts of the event was one that could only happen in a Zoom room: Watching as countless tributes, stories and congratulations poured in on the chat throughout the event. Seeing firsthand the impact our awardees have had on so many lives reminded us why we chose to honor them.

If you missed the Awards (or just want to relive them), you're in luck—they are now available to watch on-demand. We rounded up some of the highlights:

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.