A Local Life: Elisabeth Graetzer

Decades Full of Dance, Just for the Joy of It

Elisabeth Graetzer was thrilled when a former student succeeded, knowing
Elisabeth Graetzer was thrilled when a former student succeeded, knowing "that she made a difference in [a] person's life." (Family Photo)
By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006

For years, the poster on the dressing room wall of Elisabeth Graetzer's ballet school reminded students of what Graetzer knew in every sinew of her lithe body: "To live is to dance, to dance is to live."

Graetzer -- elegant, exacting and energetic -- danced through most of her life. From the time she was a young girl learning to face the barre to the founding of her Falls Church ballet school, Graetzer reveled in movement.

Whether a classical ballet, a Viennese waltz, a Hungarian czardas or even the polka, the former prima ballerina loved performing, loved being on stage, loved being one with the music. When she danced, she would elegantly open her arms and synchronize herself with the rhythm of the music. She would extend her body and move her head just so.

"It would take your breath away," said Marcia Espenschied, a student for more than 25 years and the mother of two former students. "You could almost feel time stop" when she danced.

Through more than 40 years of coaxing, pushing and teaching, Graetzer passed her enthusiasm to thousands of dance students -- young and older -- at the Falls Church School of Ballet. She wanted them to experience through dance the same joie de vivre that radiated through her.

"She was very tickled, very pleased when she had a student go on beyond her school and into ballet as a career," said her daughter, Inez S. Graetzer of Portland, Ore. "It gave her that sense of wow . . . that she made a difference in that person's life."

Even after she lost her ability to be in sync with music of Strauss, Mozart and Chopin, dance stayed with her in one form or another until her death March 10, at 82, of congestive heat failure.

Born Elisabeth Charlotte Fauck in Vienna, Austria, she was the youngest of four children and greatly indulged by her father. She took piano and dance as a schoolgirl. During the Nazi occupation of Austria, she received a master's degree in Russian ballet, choreography, character and modern dance from the State Academy of Music and Drama in Vienna.

As a dancer, she would perform at lavish affairs where food was plentiful. She and other dancers would fill bags with food and take it to their families, who had lost almost everything.

As the arts continued to flourish there, so did she. Graetzer was in the dance touring company of the Vienna State Academy, appearing in Italy, the Netherlands and Germany. Later, she was a member in the corps de ballet of the Vienna State Opera Ballet and then prima ballerina with the Innsbruck Opera Ballet in Austria.

Siegfried A. Graetzer, a native of Poland who was then a British Army officer, was sitting close to the stage when he saw her dance in Innsbruck more than 60 years ago. Another dancer introduced them, and "I got stuck with her," he joked. When he got sick and had to stay in a clinic for two months, she took care of him and even bought antibiotics for him from a French soldier on the black market. They married in 1948 and lived in Innsbruck and Salzburg, Austria, and in Munich before immigrating to the United States with her family in 1952.

Mrs. Graetzer, who didn't speak English then, worked at Jelleff's department store in Washington, putting price tags on clothes. Through friends, she got a job teaching ballet at Foxes School of Dance in Falls Church. By 1960, she had opened her own school and studio, and four years later she had a new one built to her specifications -- complete with a wooden sprung floor.

The mother of three was a tough teacher, a perfectionist who wanted it done right. She also readily tutored those who needed extra help.

She sometimes walked around practices with a stick to push someone's legs around or to rap out rhythms on the floor, recalled her granddaughter, Claire Brisendine. "She didn't count. She did this tapping on her hands. You had to listen. She taught a lot of musicality to her students."

Espenschied was one of Graetzer's older students, a self-described groupie. She said Graetzer made even the most awkward student "feel that you were a dancer or could be a dancer." Instead of denigrating a student who was overweight, she would say in her low, Austrian accent, "You look strong today."

Graetzer masterfully choreographed ballets, visualizing in her head the dance and then the students best suited for certain parts. Her small dance troupes performed her uniquely choreographed pieces at many international balls in Washington, including the annual Hungarian Freedom Fighters Ball.

After illnesses made it too difficult for her to continue teaching, Graetzer sold the school in 2003.

For a while she continued her ritual of watching Walter Cronkite's New Year's Eve performances from the Vienna Philharmonic and critiquing the Strauss polkas and waltzes.

In recent months, she and her daughters, Inez Graetzer and Yvonne Erickson, watched "Dancing with the Stars" on TV, and with a teacher's eye, Graetzer noticed how the participants were learning the difficult dance steps. But more than the steps, it was the joy of dancing that captivated her once again.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company