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."