| Teacher, writer, educator, performer, philosopher, historian, and advocate,
Thalia’s accomplishments in ballet were astonishing.
When the Jackson (Mississippi) City Council rechristened the Jackson Municipal Auditorium as Thalia Mara Hall in 1996, a monumental performing space of some 2,400 seats was renamed in honor of a monumental pioneer in the history of twentieth-century American dance. Teacher, writer, educator, performer, philosopher, historian, and advocate, Thalia’s accomplishments in ballet were astonishing to many of us who at first wondered and watched from afar as she brought the first international ballet competition in the United States to Jackson, but her life before Jackson had been equally impressive if not even more so. The reissue of her book Fourth Steps in Ballet: On Your Toes! (re-titled On Pointe) by Princeton Book Company, Publishers, renews one of her most lasting legacies—her careful and anatomically grounded teaching methods, which have produced some of the most prominent artists in the galaxy of stars in dance today.
The formation of the USA International Ballet Competition (known fondly as the IBC)
And providing young dancers with some of this necessary experience to face their future may turn out to be Thalia’s most important legacy during the last twenty years of her life.
In my opinion, one of the most important aspects of the IBC’s evolution was the introduction, for the first time ever at such an event, of a psychological safety net of support, as well as sensitive guidance to those competing dancers who did not place in the ranks of “winners.” But I must use that word winners with circumspection because a young dancer’s qualifying for Jackson and going through the ordeal of competing with other major talent created many more “winners” than you will find in the impressive listing of those who won prizes.
Young dancers going to the IBC, held every four years, can gain enormous experience through working with some of today’s best teachers and from coming into contact with prominent professionals in their chosen field, not to mention the distinct advantages of making new friends from around the world. One of my great sources of knowledge and inspiration, Marian Horosko, herself an excellent teacher and inspiring author of many dance books, first brought Mara’s clearly written and beautifully illustrated books to my attention in 1970 at Dance Magazine, where Marion and I would work together for thirty years. I was a bright, young kid, just out of too many years of graduate work at Yale, and I had been thrust into the position of managing editor of the world’s leading dance publication on short notice.
Marion told me that I should become familiar with Thalia’s books
Thalia’s volumes quickly became indispensable to me as an editor. My team of proof readers, fact checkers, writers, and I referred to Thalia’s books often over many years, undoubtedly contributing to the well-deserved reputation for accuracy we managed to maintain at the magazine until 2000, thirty years later.
And it was with the greatest pleasure that I met the great lady in 1989 when she asked me to serve at the IBC as chairman of the International Advisory Committee, which turned out, to my delight, to be not just an honorary position but a working one as well.
Along with the great American novelist and short story writer Eudora Welty, Thalia found herself one of the jewels in Jackson’s cultural crown. Troubled by deadly racial strife, Jackson was a small Southern city still smarting economically and socially from the loss of the American Civil War over a hundred years before. Thalia’s ballet competition—ballet, mind you, in Mississippi in the 1970s!—changed that. She brought about a great cultural revival, returning to the city a sense of its worth. IBC put Jackson not only on the international map, but it gave Jacksonians something genuinely wonderful and homegrown to be proud of in the context of contemporary culture. This is a story that today is just beginning to be told in full.
IBC these days is arguably the most prestigious of the world’s ballet competitions—of which there are quite a few—and the city of Jackson has ridden very well on IBC’s coattails. You have only to see the thousands of volunteers from the city and surrounding countryside to feel the depth of pride they have in their competition. Thalia created in current parlance a win-win situation for both ballet and Jackson.
This book, On Pointe, is enhanced by the editing of Janice Barringer,
Janice has also contributed a fascinating essay, “A look at the USA International Ballet Competition,” which also includes Thalia’s biography. Reading over this material, you will find that Thalia’s friends and associates included men and women who were seminal to the expansion and development of dance in the twentieth century. To name only a few in a breathtaking list: Assef Messerer, Natalia Dudinskaya, Yuri Grigorovich, Anton Dolin, Hilda Butsova, Olga Preobrajenska (with whom Thalia studied in Paris and credits as her most important teacher), Albertina Rasch (in whose company Thalia danced in the 1920’s), Michael Fokine, and Pepo (her parrot and companion for forty-five years). Her husband, Arthur Mahoney, was her dancing partner as well as her partner in founding and running the schools. Arthur’s niece, Leanne Mahoney, is the guiding spirit behind this reissue of her aunt’s book on pointe work.
So much of Thalia’s advice is as valid today as it ever was. “A well-trained ballet teacher,” she writes, “understands [the physiological development of bones in the feet] because knowledge of anatomy is a prerequisite for anyone who deals with the physical development of the body.”
And as many of us have observed, “Deformed toes, painful bunion joints, a nagging backache for life are the result of incorrect training at too early an age.”
You have to know these things—and so much else that can be found in this book—in order to be an effective teacher.
Thalia’s basic principles are as sound as ever, perhaps even more so when you see what some of today’s bad teaching has wrought on the bodies of our dancers. And Thalia’s philosophy of teaching can be found today in the work of many of our best teachers. Once the training of a dancer has begun to take place, ballet becomes something else:
“Ballet is not nearly as physical as it is spiritual, more in the mind.”
Many good ballet technicians on stage today might benefit from taking that observation to heart. “Dance is the only art form in which an artist himself becomes a work of art.”
Professional dancers, students, teachers, educators, historians, audience members seeking to understand more about this beloved art form—and even dance journalists!—will find these pages of enduring value.