Every fall, we like to put out two photographs, which, for the rest of the year, are tucked in an inconspicuous corner of Miss Grace’s desk. The pictures come out in the fall in part because they match the décor at this time of year. One, mounted with an aubergine mat and the other, with the genuine faded orange effect that comes with 1970s photographs. But the reason we love these two pictures is not because of their coloring. We love them because they are photographs of Melissa Hayden, without whom, there would be no Still Pointe.
Melissa Hayden was a Canadian ballerina who danced with Radio City Music Hall and Ballet Theater (later to become ABT) before joining New York City Ballet in its earliest days. From 1955 until 1973, she was a leading ballerina under the direction of George Balanchine, appearing in more than 60 ballets. She was often partnered by Jacques D’Amboise and was known for her strength and tenacity. Upon her retirement, she devoted the rest of her life to teaching, which is how she came to impact a great many students, including a young college girl named Eleanor.
Melissa taught Eleanor at Skidmore College, becoming the single most impactful teacher Eleanor would ever have. Millie had a determination and very personal teaching style that pushed Eleanor in the critical years of early college. The small number of students at Skidmore worked to Eleanor’s advantage, receiving the attention needed to compensate for the obstacles of her early training and starting “late” as a 12 year old. Millie had been known as a fierce and determined dancer. She maintained those attributes as she transitioned into the new phase of her career as a teacher.
Though not often known for being warm and fuzzy in the studio, Melissa nurtured her students’ technique and their spirits. She and her husband invited poor college dancers to their house for steak dinners and some much needed R&R. She mentored her students and looked out for them. Eleanor had not come from a wealthy family and tuition at Skidmore was already a stretch for her. But Melissa looked out for the young dancer who had little to recommend her besides her determination. Millie herself hadn’t had the “perfect body”, so advantageous to ballet dancers; but because of this seeming shortcoming, she knew how to mold imperfection into beauty. And for all the stories about her, Melissa and her husband bought pointe shoes for that poor student from Philly without a perfect body.
Melissa moved to Seattle for a short time, prompting Eleanor to transfer to North Carolina School of the Arts to complete her degree. Millie later returned to New York and opened her own studio, which served many professional dancers seeking her vast knowledge. Upon leaving the Canadian company Entre-Six, Eleanor went to New York where she spent her third year of training under Melissa. It was from there that Millie made the connections that moved Eleanor (and now her husband Rob as well) to Atlanta and the Atlanta Ballet. Eventually, Melissa found her forever home in Winston-Salem at NCSA.
So in the end, though Melissa had an incredible career as a professional dancer, it’s her legacy as a teacher and a mentor that we strive to honor today. Melissa was a force, but that force made Eleanor’s dream of dancing professionally possible and eventually led to Still Pointe. We hope that Millie would be proud, peeking out from her photographs at a studio full of imperfect, but tenacious students.