"Day-yum-da-da . . . day-yum."
"Stop, stop, stop. Now, here is what is imporrrrrtant. Two shoulders forward, always forward.
The tiny, 71-year-old Sulamith Messerer, former prima ballerina and coach with the Bolshoi Ballet, sounded as if she had been teaching this group of 22 young Americans for years. And they responded in kind.
Inside of an hour and 15 minutes, the length of the first of two master ballet classes that Messerer taught last Sunday for the Virginia Ballet Company in Springfield, the excitement and tension in the mirrored rehearsal room became professional discipline in the gentle hands of this near-legendary woman.
Messerer who is from a renowned Russian ballet family -- her niece Maya Plisetskaya is currently prima ballerina of the Bolshoi -- defected two months ago, with her son, to the United States. Since then she has been teaching at professional ballet companies such as the American Ballet Theater and the Harkness School of Ballet.
At the Virginia classes last week, Messerer radiated energy, but never raised her voice -- a far cry from the stick-carrying ballet mistress that brings nightmares to young dancers. Dressed in black slacks and sweater, with antique gold-drop earrings and pink T-strap dance shoes, Messerer spoke softly, always softly, communicating by turns in French -- the international language of ballet -- then in thickly accented English, then simply with her impish, sparkling brown eyes.
She carried no stick at all, but instead, corrected individual students with her hands, almost caressing them as she changed the angle of one dancer's neck, improved the turnout of another's feet or steadied another's arm.
For most of the young students, it was the chance of a lifetime.
Messerer looked as if she felt the same way.
Standing in the middle of the room, she first directed warm-up exercises, demonstrating stretches by effortlessly lifting her foot to the top of the high bar and leading port de bras with arms and hands that were commanding, yet as fluid as ribbons.
But it was not just Messerer's agility -- which clearly belied her age -- that impressed the students. Even when Messerer "walked" the class through steps, she was, as several students put it, inspiring.
"She really opens you up. There is feeling even in the warm-up exercises. It is not just mechanical," said Leslee Gerhart, who runs a dance school in Manassas and was one of the few adults in the master class.
Similarly inspired and, as she put it, "high" after the class, Renee Yachanbach, a 24-year-old Virginia Ballet Company student and teacher, said she "dug it that (Messerer) is Russian, and that's where all the ballet blood is."
The master classes came about because Oleg Tupine, head of the ballet company and a former dancer with the Ballet Russe, was contacted by a friend who heads one of the New York dance schools where Messerer now teaches.
In light of her recent defection, which occurred while she was in Tokyo teaching as a Russian ambassador of good will, Messerer was understandably nervous about traveling by train from New York to Washington. uShe arrived wearing a red carnation, which was how Tupine was to recognize her at Union Station. All went as planned and, in fact, the rapport that developed between Messerer and Tupine, whose Russian ancestry stands out in his own cultured accent, has developed into a friendship.
A spokesman for the ballet company said Messerer may return to Virginia to conduct a three-day workshop for teachers.
The timing of Sunday's master classes was particularly fortuitous for Virginia Ballet members who are preparing for a highly ambitious performance of "Giselle," scheduled for May 17 and 18 at Springfield High School. Said one participant: "Without jumping around -- without doing the athletic part -- she gives what is missing. The young girls here have the athletic ability; she gives you the nuances, the finesse, the style."
Messerer was equally impressed with the class.
"Their teacher (Tupine) teaches them the right way," she said after the first class ended. "This is so good for a dancer to see -- young people learning the right way to do things."
Despite their professional training, the students sensed the special something that Messerer brought to them.
"It's her trained eye," said one. "That's one little movement you get just from listening to her and watching her."
"It's her charming manner," said another. "She really got the best out of us."
"What impresed me most," said Nancy Pollard who, at 34, has studied with teachers from both the Western and Russian tradition, "was that she gets to the guts of the movement. For example, I had never understood what made those (ballerinas') arms work. It looks like a soft arm, but it's not; it's not fluid at all. It is a very tense arm with the hand loose. Somehow, between Tupine and Messerer, I have finally learned that. It gives me an enormous sense of accomplishment."