Creativity, Life and Love, Lifestyle

Irina Lebedeva, A Ballerina

by Carla Hall D’Ambra

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Irina Lebedeva is a ballerina. From the top of her head, down to her toes, Irina exudes the poise and beauty of the classical ballet dancer. When Irina enters the room, it’s with graceful, fluid movement, as if she’s floating. Her voice is soft and melodic, and the accent is undeniably Russian.

Irina Lebedeva is one of the North Shore’s treasures. As artistic director of Long Island Ballet Academy in Sea Cliff, Irina shares her vast talent, experience and art with her students, both children and adults, teaching Vaganova method of classical ballet. The Vaganova method has become the foremost Russian technique, based on a grading system, and many famous ballet dancers including Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, have trained in this method.

On a sunny, summer afternoon, we sit outside in my garden, and Irina is in awe of the butterflies around us. She notes how beautiful they move and flutter, and as she speaks of the soft yellowness of this flying insect, she moves her hands softly, with a slight twirl from the wrist and for a moment, she becomes the butterfly, and I am in awe.

Irina was born in Siberia and started dancing at five years old. When she was nine she moved away from home to begin training for professional dancing at the Perm Ballet Academy in the city of Perm. In order to study at this prestigious school, an audition was required.   For each available spot, 250 children auditioned, 25 were chosen and Irina was one of them. Her first teacher, Antonina, loved Irina, and she told Irina’s parents that Irina was gifted and special.

When she was eleven, Irina was awarded a more than perfect grade score of 5 ½ at Perm Ballet Academy where the highest grade possible was 5. She was the first student to be offered an extra two years of study before moving on to the professional dance company. Because the government paid for the dance education, her parents were thrilled and extremely proud of this honor for their daughter. The professional company was also fighting to bring Irina in, but Irina chose to accept the two additional years of ballet training.

“You fall in love, and it’s a tragedy if you can’t continue,” says Irina, “when you fall in love with performing.” And indeed, Irina was in love with dance, and began performing professionally in Russia and around the world. She danced principal parts early on, skipping the corps de ballet after breaking her toe while dancing with the corps. Irina laughs and admits that she and some of her fellow dancers were known as “spoiled” because they trained hard and they liked the “star” treatment.  Her favorite roles are in the ballets Romeo & Juliet and Swan Lake.

As Irina developed as a dancer and artist, she felt she didn’t have the freedom of expression she so longed for while living in Russia.   With each trip out into the world, Irina dreamt of being free. On one specific occasion, her dance company was coming to the United States. At first Irina was told she would not be included in the trip, but at the last minute, her director told her to pack her bags and be ready “just in case.” In the final hours, Irina received a call that she would, after all, be going, to the United States. This was the trip that forever changed her life. Irina arrived in America, she danced, and she defected.

Irina was one of the last persons to defect from Russia before the Peristroika and before the Berlin wall came down. When she finally got to New York and felt safe, she began to carve out her new life. In New York, Irina reached out to Mikhail Baryshnikov, and he asked her, “Where do you want to work?” Irina told him, “Anywhere I can stay in shape.” He liked that answer and helped Irina find her classes and eventually get back to work. Irina’s first job in the United States was with a ballet company in Buffalo, New York.

After years of concentrated performing, Irina began teaching as well.   While still living in New York City, she and fellow defector and dancer Andrei Bossov opened a cultural center in Waterville, Maine, where the two performed and taught together for fifteen years.

Eight years ago Irina bought a beautiful, spacious studio, LI Ballet Academy, in Sea Cliff, where she now teaches children and adults classical ballet, and where she rehearses her productions. Today, Irina is focused on teaching and giving to her students. With her young students, her philosophy is that “whatever you offer them, they will get it. Ballet is a difficult art, and it is hard, but children are strong.”

As we sit under the patio umbrella on this summer day, Irina tells me, “Children need freedom. When children are free to try things, and not be afraid, they grow.” She mentions that years after her defection, she has seen her fellow dancers from Russia and their response is always, “You are my hero, Irina. I didn’t have the courage to do what you did.”  Irina assures me that she never had one moment of thinking she’d done the wrong thing by defecting as she did, and coming to the United States.

Currently, Irina also teaches ballet to adults at her studio, and has found that ballet is therapeutic for adults. “Ballet training gives you everything,” she states, “and it prepares you for the day and it makes you strong. The music and the movements keep your mind sharp.” According to Irina, it is never too late to begin dancing, and enjoy the benefits of adult ballet, even if you have never had dance training. She teaches adult morning classes on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 10:30am – 12noon.

Irina’s ballet students are now winning scholarships and some are dancing professionally. It makes Irina happy to see her students dancing out in the world. One of her students recently said to her, “Miss Irina, you made me stronger.” Irina is looking forward to producing The Nutcracker this winter, and she often has guest artists from the Bolshoi, Kremlin, and Moscow Ballets during the summer months teaching master classes at her Sea Cliff studio.

As we take a walk through my garden after our interview, Irina says, “I want to take off my shoes and feel the grass.” We remove our shoes and the lush, thick grass feels heavenly on our bare feet. She tells me she was always running and dancing in barefoot as a child back home in Siberia. She says in her beautiful Russian accent, “The grass is wonderful. There’s so much energy coming up from the earth. It’s good for us, you know?”

For more information: LIBalletAcademy@aol.com 516-801-4393

First published in 25A Magazine, 2015

Creative Writing, Creativity, Gratitude, Life and Love, Lifestyle, Love, Motherhood

The Inconceivability of Motherhood

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Motherhood called to me from a distance. As if standing on a cliff of a canyon, the idea of becoming a mother lived on the far side, across the way. The echo of my calling for it filtered through the vast space and it never seemed to materialize into anything more than a mere concept of something on my To-Do list. Twenty-one adult years living as a single woman in New York City sheltered me from the harsh realities of my ticking clock.

I don’t remember when it was that my doctor stopped saying, “You have time.”     During my annual check-up he’d ask me how life in the Big Apple was going for a girl from Kentucky. In that antiseptic room, in that ten-minute appointment span, with my feet in the stirrups, I’d ramble. I’d given my New York City life an acronym. I called it my WAR – Work. Apartments. Relationships. I’m sure the doctor considered it “same story, different patient.” In perfect timing, as he’d wrap it up with the breast exam, lifting myself up off the exam table, on cue I’d say, “I have to find time to have a baby.” For years, he’d say, “You have plenty of time.” Later it changed to “You have time.” And then there came the time when my doctor said nothing.

Motherhood was always a choice for me some time down the road. I was busy. I was a performing artist, and when I grew weary from that gypsy life, I immersed myself in an advertising career. I became an advertising executive. It was a wonderful life, wall-to-wall, knee-deep in client service in the infancy of the dot-com era. My clients were my babies. Twenty-something-year-old venture capitalists launching brands, and I had to stay young to keep up. Eternal youth was what the brand building advertising experience was all about. At thirty-nine, I made Partner and the New York Times reported that I was thirty-four years old. When I pointed out the error to my boss, the agency’s founder and chief creative director, he informed me that he himself had told the reporter that I was thirty-four. He said that it would be great for business if I were to be younger and he hoped I wasn’t offended. Nothing offended me in those days, as one can hardly be offended and still work in advertising, so I owned it. Right there, I gave myself five more years that I really didn’t have. Call me crazy, but I actually began to believe it.

To get to work, some days I would jump on the Second Avenue bus. On the bus, I met an adorably cute little Chinese girl named Lily. Very talkative, Lily informed me she was three, and for some strange reason, Lily was mesmerized with me. Her eyes were a continuous smile. She told me an expressive story about her stuffed dog and I suppose I was attentive. The next day I took the bus hoping to see Lily again and there she was, again elated to see me. I began to ride the bus every day. Her mom, an American woman, told me she adopted Lily as a single parent. A light bulb went off! I was going to adopt a child! I called my attorney and asked him to look into it.

Soon after that time, though, I met the man who would become my husband. We married three and half years later when I was forty-four and we moved to Long Island. I felt in my heart that it was now too late to have a child and I gave up. My husband has two beautiful daughters from his first marriage and these little darlings appeased my yearning for a time. It soon became clear however, that I could and would be nothing more than a friend to the girls because they have a mother. My youngest stepdaughter, in her six year old innocence, was enchanted and excited with the idea of her daddy “buying us a Chinese baby” when I’d shared with her about my bus rides with Lily, but unfortunately my husband was not so thrilled with our plan to add a Lily to our new family, so I never got my beautiful China doll daughter.

I stopped working for a while after the death of my father, and to combat my grief I went to volunteer at my local Boys & Girls Club. I was told I could come to “Power Hour” and help children with their homework. They said I could come one day a week or five days a week.   I went every day for an entire school year, and I brought snacks for all the children at the club when I noticed that they were all so tired when they arrived off the buses after school. The children called me “Miss Carla” and they sat in my lap, brushed my hair, hugged and kissed me, competed for my attention. Most of the children were in elementary school but there were a few Middle School and High School kids. A ninth grade boy would come around and ask if I needed help with the children. He said his name was Yadiyah (pronounced Yuh-DIE-uh) and he didn’t like sweet snacks, but he liked salty snacks. I started bringing him goldfish crackers and Yadiyah was pleased.

One afternoon Yadiyah told me he would like to go to basketball camp. I’d been told that Yadiyah was one of thirteen children in his family. I told him I’d look into it for him after he told me he’d like to go to either St. Dominic’s or St. John’s. In my naiveté, I enrolled Yadiyah in St. John University’s basketball camp with Coach Steve Lavin. He had meant St. John’s of Lattingtown, a church in our community that was conducting basketball camps. Yadiyah could not believe in his wildest dreams he was really going to a college campus for basketball camp and he was ecstatic. When I asked if he enjoyed it, with a dancing light in his eyes he said, “It makes me want to get there!” From then on, I was his “Blonde Mom,” speaking with his teachers, helping with homework, buying sports gear and whatever he needed for school, signing him up for AAU teams, taking him to games, cheering him on as his “mom,” nourishing him with good food. My house was Yadiyah’s second home and his mother was thrilled that I had become his “guardian” as she called me. She signed the necessary paper at his school for me to talk to his teachers and for a time Glen Cove High School was perplexed because Yadiyah was a student with anger issues. Somehow he had calmed down.

One Sunday afternoon, my husband and I pulled up in front of Yadiyah’s house to take him to a Summer tournament game. Yadiyah came bouncing out of his house with a friend following him. Yadiyah was happy and smiling. They both crawled into the backseat of my husband’s Lexus and Yadiyah introduced his friend, Kewan (pronounced KEY-wan) from Virginia. Kewan was polite and quiet but he did tell us he was a good basketball player. As Frank and I asked questions, Kewan looked at Yadiyah and said, “Did you tell them I’m getting a scholarship?” When we got to the gym, I asked the coach if Kewan could play in this game and the coach said, “Sure.”

Something happened when Kewan walked onto the floor. It was immediately apparent that he was serious about his game. Kewan had this wonderful jump shot and he played well that night. The team won. We took the boys to dinner and we learned that Kewan is very funny. We enjoyed that evening with Kewan very much.

I didn’t know that night that this boy in the backseat of our car, Kewan Beebe, would become my son. I would learn that Kewan’s mother died when he was thirteen, and his biological father who had never lived with his mother, was serving seven years of hard time for drug and gun possession. I also learned that this beautiful boy had been shot by a stray bullet when he was fourteen and had been left to die in a Bronx hospital by his custodial parent, because she up and moved to Virginia and left Kewan there fighting for his life.

I didn’t know that I would take Kewan, just two months away from turning 18 years old, to Glen Cove High School and register him as a Junior with nothing more than a torn photocopy of his social security card that only had his mother’s maiden name on it. I did not know that Kewan would take five New York State Regent’s tests in one school year and pass them all. I did not know that my guest room would become Kewan’s bedroom. I didn’t know that his room would be filled with trophies and that Kewan would be named Most Valuable Player and lead his team to the Conference Championship, and that he would make All County and All Long Island, both highly regarded honors. I didn’t know Kewan would receive several other college scholarships.

I didn’t know that being a mother to Kewan, and to Yadiyah, two boys who’ve never called me anything other than “Mom,” could bring me such joy and happiness. I loved every minute of driving them to school on cold winter mornings, cheering for them at basketball games, caring for them when they were sick, taking them to doctors, going on basketball road trips, helping with homework, picking them up from practice, feeding them good food and watching them grow and develop into strong athletes, buying them clothes and celebrating their good grades and successes. I loved helping them learn coping skills, and guiding them in making wise choices. It was a privilege for me to help them get into colleges where they would become scholar athletes. Kewan graduated from SUNY Purchase College and Yadiyah from Johnson & Wells in Rhode Island.

Sometimes it is sheer will that will get us what we want in life. Kewan missed his mother so much and he wanted and needed a mother. Kewan is a self-proclaimed “mama’s boy” and he found me. Yadiyah had big dreams and needed love and attention and I was his mom and our community knew it.

No matter how inconceivable the concept might be, how vast that canyon of impossibility, we have the ability to create our lives. I created my life of motherhood, was blessed with two sons. The beauty of Motherhood is, once it’s created, Motherhood is forever. Motherhood never dies.

 

Creative Writing, Life and Love, Love, Patriotism

A Word About Denny

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by Carla Hall D’Ambra

I remember him well. I was very young but I have vivid memories of my mom taking my little brother and me to the drugstore where we’d see him behind the counter at the fountain service and he’d make us ice cream cones. We’d sit on the orange leather, shiny silver, spinning counter stools and lick our cones with fervor before the ice cream had time to melt. He’d give us those white rough paper napkins so we could wipe the sticky drips from our faces and hands. Sometimes Mom would leave us there on the stools under his watch while she walked to the back of the store to pick up a prescription. Other times she’d sit a few feet away at a glass table and chat with the ladies who used the drugstore for midday social gatherings. Back then the women would smoke cigarettes and sip Coca-Cola from green-tinted classic fountain glasses. One of the women who’d socialize there was the counter boy’s mother, and she was my great-aunt.   Her name was Jean and she was married to my granddad’s brother on my father’s side. Her husband, my great-uncle Norman, was the youngest child in his family so my aunt Jean was just a few years older than my mom. She was so beautiful, thin and primped like Audrey Hepburn, with red painted nails and lips to match, in her sleek sleeveless sheaths and classic black stiletto heels. The boy behind the counter that I so admired was my cousin. His name was Denny and though I was so young, I remember his warm and handsome presence. He was tall, and he stood on a platform behind the fountain service counter, and that made him even more impressive in my child opinion. Denny had the kindest eyes. I don’t remember the color so much as the shape of them. He was always smiling, and seeing Denny at the drugstore was part of the treat of the drugstore visit. My mom would say “Come on, kids, we’re going to see Denny.”  I would happy dance because I had a “little girl crush” on Denny, and because I loved ice cream.

One day we went to the drugstore and Denny wasn’t there. A tall lady with a deep voice gave us our cones and walked away, leaving my brother and me alone on the stools without even a napkin.   My mom told us Denny had gone away for a while but he’d be back soon. Going to the drugstore was no longer fun. I missed my tall blond dreamboat nineteen-year-old cousin who gave us cones with a smile.   As time passed, other young people worked behind the counter, but no one and nothing compared to the service we got from our cousin Denny. My aunt Jean would still sit at the glass table in the drugstore with other ladies but she wasn’t as lively.   Sometimes she and my mom would whisper when they chatted. Even at seven years old I found it strange and ominous because my mom and Aunt Jean were always so free with their laughter and conversation when they were together. Both women had very sunny personalities and now they each seemed partly cloudy when they spoke. I knew something was surely different.

And then, during a very grey and rainy, dismal autumn season in 1969, one afternoon I got off the bus, and ran into our house, hoping my mom had baked a cake or cookies, or had some special treat as she often had for us, but on this day the surprise was that I found her on our sofa couch, crying. She didn’t tell me why she was crying, and I knew better than to ask. She told me to go to my room. When my dad came home promptly at 4:15pm as he did every day, I listened to them talking, and I heard something about getting the body back, and then I heard my dad say, “Ah, heck.”

Then there was the silence.   My parents didn’t say anything to my brother and me, and hardly anything to each other for the next couple of days. My dad went to work, came home, and watched the evening news. The black and white images of the Vietnam War flashed nightly from our TV screen and Walter Cronkite told us “that’s the way it was.” My mom prepared supper, cleaned the kitchen and stood at the sink with tears rolling down her face. Then one morning, instead of getting ready for work, my dad dressed in a black suit, and my mom put on a black dress. I specifically remember that rainy, dark morning with my parents dressed in those ominous clothes, and the thick heavy air in our house.  Dad stood in silence waiting for my mom, leaning against our front door, looking out the narrow window that hit his eye level, and I bet he was crying but he would never let me see his tears.   My brother and I got on the school bus that early morning, not knowing that mommy and daddy were going to someone’s funeral.

That afternoon when we got home from school, and my parents returned, we learned the God-awful truth. My beautiful dreamboat, just turned twenty-one, cousin named Denny who gave us smiles and ice cream and knew my favorite flavor was chocolate, had been killed in the scary, black and white TV place called South Vietnam. He had been there for his time and was planning on coming home soon when he was riding in a vehicle that hit a land mine. I remember my mom trying to tell me that he didn’t feel it, and it didn’t hurt him, and now Denny was with Jesus. I wanted Denny to be back in the drugstore scooping out ice cream from the big vats in the flip top freezer behind the counter. I wanted him to tell me I had chocolate on my nose, or call me cutie or just be there taking care of all the other customers. Forget this being with Jesus thing. What in the world, I asked, is the war? Why is there war and why did my beautiful cousin Denny have to go to this terrible place called war? My eight year- old mind could not comprehend then, and my now fifty-plus year old brain can still not understand. Denny was killed in South Vietnam by a land mine most likely planted by The Viet Cong. This should have been considered safe territory. This territory was the land my cousin was protecting.

Aunt Jean and Uncle Norman never recovered from the loss. Denny was their only child. My uncle passed away a couple of years ago and my aunt lives alone. The walls of Aunt Jean’s house are still covered with pictures of Denny. Those photos record a twenty-one year life.   Denny would be 63 years old now. He had a fiancée then and after all these years, the fiancée is still in touch with my aunt even though that young woman had to find a new life for herself after losing her dreamboat love, my cousin, Denny. It’s more than sad about what could’ve been had it not been for the fucking land mine buried deep in the ground of the land that he, Dennis Gayle Hall, my beautiful cousin, was there to protect and save from communist takeover in the name of the United States of America.

Something really strange happened this past autumn. I came home from a long day of work, and my husband was having a business dinner out so I was alone in our home. For no apparent reason, I sat down at my laptop, and I don’t know why, but I went to Google, and I started typing “Casualties of the Vietnam War.”   No particular reason, no prior thought that day of war, or of my cousin Denny. I hadn’t thought of him in a long while, and I haven’t seen my aunt in several years. I now thought about Denny as I searched, and I typed in his name. I would have been devastated if his name had not been listed, but there it was. I found him in the group under Kentucky casualties. I saw his name and a tremendous wave of emotion came over me. I scrolled down his information page and I saw that his details were all listed. His name, his social security number, date of birth 7/31/48, hometown, his rank, how he died and date of death were all listed there in front of me. The date of death was recorded as 10/20/69.   I looked at the date on my computer. It read 10/20/10.

Life and Love

A New Year, A New Day

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Today is New Year’s Day.  The first day of the year.  It’s fresh, new and full of possibility.  Every year I make resolutions.  Some I keep and some go out the window the moment I say it.  This year my resolutions are simple.  I resolve to wear pink on Wednesdays because, well, I like pink, and because it takes me back to my ballet days of a soft pink attitude in a strictly disciplined, very sweaty artistic world.   I also resolve to drink more water.  Water will give me life and energy and if I’m hydrated I will look better in my pink on Wednesdays.  We girls want to be pretty.  Pretty in pink.  Pretty is as pretty does.  Pretty is a state of mind.  I am no longer denying it.  I’m owning it.  I’m owning the fact that I adore pink.  And finally, I resolve to dance.  Dance has been my friend, has saved me, made me crazy, kept me sane.  Sometimes I have the opportunity to dance and I sit it out.  This year, if the opportunity presents itself, by goodness, I’m going to dance! Happy New Year! I love you.

Life and Love

Every Moment Counts

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My son is an athlete and this weekend he broke his hand.  He most likely needs surgery and he’ll be out for  the season.  He has a good attitude about the injury, and in his attitude I see how much he’s grown, how much he’s learned in these past few years that we’ve had together.  We truly have learned to turn a challenge into an opportunity.  There’s no sitting down here; we’re moving forward.  Rather, he’s moving forward.  Sometimes I forget that I am not him and he is not me. I forget that he has become a man. They tell me this is normal mother-thinking.  Every day I’m learning to be a mother.  In moments like this, in times such as this, I believe that I have become a mother.