Ballet's unstoppable force

Not the wispy ballerina: Hayden in her heyday at New York City Ballet

At 14, Gillian Murphy remembers walking into her first class with renowned ballerina Melissa Hayden, whose intense demeanor could seem harsh. “She bounded into the room and electrified us with her energy,” says Murphy, now a principal with American Ballet Theatre. “We learned something very important about seizing the moment, pushing ourselves beyond what we thought possible.” Hayden adored students who echoed her own tough focus, and she inspired them to grab movement with both fists.

Dancing with the company longer than any other ballerina of her generation, Hayden’s tenure with New York City Ballet lasted 24 years, from 1949 to 1973 (with the exception of two interim years at Ballet Theatre). She performed the classics and originated roles in some of George Balanchine’s most important ballets, including Divertimento No. 15 (1956), Agon (1957), Liebeslieder Walzer (1960) and Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet (1966). Hayden’s triumphs, however, did not come without relentless work and unwavering stamina.

Born Mildred Herman in 1923, Hayden came to ballet late. In her hometown Toronto, the 15-year-old committed herself to study with the Russian-trained dancer Boris Volkoff. Though Volkoff once remarked that she wasn’t extremely gifted, Hayden’s determination was evident. At 20, she moved to New York City; her first stop was the Ballets Russes–based Vilzak-Shollar School. Three months later, Hayden joined the Radio City Music Hall ballet corps, but she remained steadfast in her training. Warned that she wouldn’t have the time or energy to perform four times a day and study ballet, Hayden proved her naysayers wrong. She took two classes daily and ran the seven blocks between the theater and studio.

Her dedication to training paid off when she landed a job with Ballet Theatre in 1945. And in 1949, at the invitation of Balanchine, Hayden joined New York City Ballet. Her strength and resilience became public record in 1950. A London newspaper wrote of her performance of William Dollar’s The Duel: “Ballerina knocks herself out in spot where she is supposed to die.” Hayden slipped, smashed into the floor face first and jabbed her elbow into her diaphragm. She blacked out—but after receiving mouth-to-mouth in the wings, she finished the lead role.

Despite audience veneration and peer admiration, Hayden’s crown possessed one thorn: Balanchine. As of 1953, she had yet to serve as his muse—unlike the ballerinas for whom he had created leading roles. He also denied her the lead in Swan Lake, implying she wasn’t lyrical enough to dance the Odette/Odile dual role. So she returned to Ballet Theatre that year and proved Balanchine wrong—becoming one of the foremost interpreters of the part. During her years with the company (1945–1947, 1953–1955), she developed into a lyrical and dramatic dancer, applying her athleticism to the diverse styles of Antony Tudor, Agnes de Mille, Alicia Alonso and Frederick Ashton.

Yet Hayden soon missed Balanchine’s dynamic choreography and rehearsal process. She returned to NYCB in 1955 for good, as principal dancer. And in 1961, when Hayden became pregnant with her second child, Balanchine gave her direction of the School of American Ballet’s nationwide auditions. Hayden also helped shape New York City public school dance education, originating the now-popular lecture demonstrations.

In 1973, 50-year-old Hayden retired from NYCB. Balanchine created Cortège Hongrois, granting her the honor, finally, of serving as his muse. That year New York City’s mayor awarded Hayden the Handel Medallion, the city’s highest cultural award.

But she didn’t stop there. She immediately thrust herself into teaching: She taught at Skidmore College, established a ballet school in New York City, and from 1976 to 1977, served as Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ballet mistress and school director. In 1983, she began her tenure at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where, over a 24-year span, she taught more than 6,000 students.

Once, during a particularly grueling rehearsal series in preparation for a six-month tour with Ballet Theatre, the young Hayden unknowingly penned her epitaph. Overwhelmed and exhausted, she said, “I can’t anymore. I’ll collapse. Well, so I’ll die dancing.” She continued to teach classes until just a few weeks before her death in 2006. Dying of cancer at 83, the petite firecracker lived her entire life with ferocious tenacity. DT

Did you know:

* Melissa Hayden performed as a ballerina in Charlie Chaplin’s 1952 film, Limelight.

* In 1945, Antony Tudor gave Mildred Herman her stage name: Melissa Hayden.

* Hayden’s students include: NYCB corps member Megan LeCrone (at University of North Carolina School of the Arts) and former NYCB soloist Susan Pilarre (in Cedarhurst, NY), who now is on faculty at The School of American Ballet.

* Jacques d’Amboise, Hayden’s longtime partner, said that she kept jugs of Gatorade, thermoses of hot tea with lemon and honey, hundreds of pointe shoes and an oxygen tank in the wings.

* According to Gillian Murphy, Hayden would have new students in her UNCSA classes do jumping jacks in order to quell their nerves.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

Films:

Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas (Seahorse Films, 1981).

Limelight (RKO-Pathé Studios, 1952)

The Art of the Pas de Deux, Vol. 2 (Video Artists International, 2006)

Firestone Dances, Historic Dance Performances (Kultur, 2008)

Books and Articles

Anastos, Peter. “Interview: Melissa Hayden on Ballet, Ballets, Balanchine.” Dance Magazine, August, 1973.

Boal, Peter. “A Conversation with Melissa Hayden.” Ballet Review, Spring 2007, 46-52.

Brauner, Dale. “America’s Ballerina, A Tribute to Melissa Hayden.” DanceView. Vol. 24, No. 1, Winter 2007

Gustaitis, Rasta. Melissa Hayden, Ballerina. New York: Rutledge Books, 1967.

Hayden, Melissa. Dancers to Dancer: Advice for Today’s Dancer. New York: Doubleday, 1981.

Hayden, Melissa. Melissa Hayden, Off Stage and On. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1963.

Kirstein, Lincoln. “A Tribute to Melissa Hayden.” Dance Magazine. August 1973, 32-34.

Lawson, William James. “Hayden, Melissa.” The International Encyclopedia of Dance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Reynolds, Nancy. Repertory in Review: Forty Years of the New York City Ballet. New York, 1967.

Tracy, Robert, and Sharon DeLano. Balanchine’s Ballerinas: Conversations with the Muses. New York, 1983.

 

Rachel Straus teaches dance history at The Juilliard School.

Photo by Walter E. Owen, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via YouTube

In its 14 years of existence, YouTube has been home to a world of competition dance videos that we have all consumed with heedless pleasure. Every battement, pirouette and trendy move has been archived somewhere, and we are all very thankful.

We decided it was time DT did a deep dive through those years of footage to show you the evolution of competition dance since the early days of YouTube.

From 2005 to 2019, styles have shifted a whole lot. Check them out, and let us know over on our Facebook page what you think the biggest differences are!

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of Koelliker

Sick of doing the same old stuff in technique class? Needing some across-the-floor combo inspiration? We caught up with three teachers from different areas of the country to bring you some of their favorite material for their day-to-day classes.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: I have a very flexible spine and torso. My teachers tell me to use this flexibility during cambrés and port de bras, but when I do, I feel pain—mostly in my lower back. What should I change so I don't end up with back problems?

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're a studio owner, the thought of raising your rates most likely makes you cringe. Despite ever-increasing overhead expenses you can't avoid—rent, salaries, insurance—you're probably wary of alienating your customers, losing students or inviting confrontation if you increase the price of your tuition or registration and recital fees. DT spoke with three veteran studio owners who suggest it's time to get past that. Here's how to give your business the revenue boost it needs and the value justification it (and you) deserve.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Margie Gillis (left); photo by Kyle Froman

Margie Gillis dances the human experience. Undulating naked in a field of billowing grass in Lessons from Nature 4, or whirling in a sweep of lilac fabric in her signature work Slipstream, her movement is free of flashy technique and tricks, but driven and defined by emotion. "There's a central philosophy in my work about what the experience of being human is," says Gillis, whose movement style is an alchemy of Isadora Duncan's uninhibited self-expression and Paul Taylor's musicality, blended with elements of dance theater into something utterly unique and immediately accessible. "I want an authenticity," she says. "I want to touch my audiences profoundly and deeply."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Teaching arabesque can be a challenge for educators and students alike. Differences in body types, flexibility and strength can leave dancers feeling dejected about the possibility of improving this essential position.

To help each of us in our quest for establishing beautiful arabesques in our students without bringing them to tears, we caught up with University of Utah ballet teacher Jennie Creer-King. After her professional career dancing with Ballet West and Oregon Ballet Theater and her years of teaching at the studio and college levels, she's become a bit of an arabesque expert.

Here she shares five important tips for increasing the height of your students' arabesques.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via Instagram

Happy Father's Day to all of the dance dads in the world! Whether you're professional dancers, dance teachers, dance directors or simply just dance supporters, you are a key ingredient to what makes the dance world such a happy, thriving place, and we love you!

To celebrate, here are our four favorite Instagram dance dads. Prepare to say "Awwwwwwwweeeeeee!!!!!!"

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox