Amanda McKerrow, the 17-year-old ballerina who last week became the first American dancer ever to win a gold medal at the International Ballet Competition in Moscow, came home to Washington yesterday, returning to a heroine's welcome from her friends and family and to all the hoopla by the media that her victory made inevitable.
The tiny, wraith-like figure in the striped T-shirt and the rumpled slacks looked almost too fragile to be diving into the sea of celebrity that awaited her in the form of bright lights, television cameras, and an instant press conference, moments after she stepped off the plane at National Airport.
But the poise and serenity that had carried her through the intense trials of the quadrennial competition that requires Olympic levels of skill and discipline stood her in good stead in the face of the fanfare that greeted her after an exhausting 24 hours of travel, although she said all the attention she was receiving made her uncomfortable.
McKerrow won the top prize in the junior women's division at the competition and was the only dancer among the 13 Americans who entered to make it to the finals. For some of those who gathered to greet her, pride and patriotism performed their own pas de deux, and McKerrow's victory carried with it some of the same joy that accompanied the 23-year-old Van Cliburn in 1958 when he returned from winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. For others there was a triumph to savor that the American boycott of the Moscow Olympics last summer had long delayed.
"At last the Americans have gone to Russia. It's a great thing for this country," said Kay Butler, one of the approximately 100 well-wishers who stood behind a hand-made sign welcoming back McKerrow, her partner, Simon Dow, and Mary Day, the artistic director of the Washington Ballet and McKerrow's coach for the competitions. Around Butler was a covey of fledgling ballerinas from the Washington Ballet school, armed with bouquets of roses, and clutching handfuls of confetti, dreams of their own dancing in their eyes.
At her press conference, McKerrow said she was overwhelmed by the reception the Russian audiences had given her dancing, and the sophisticated awareness of balletic subtleties they displayed. "It changed my perspective completely. I always thought I wanted to go to New York to dance, but now I think I ought to give the European companies a try. Dancing is more of a way of life there, it's not treated like a sport."
McKerrow shrugged away specific questions concerning her future, indicating more concern for the moment with the immediate need for sleep and promises of pizza waiting at home in Rockville.
And no, she said, she didn't feel much like a hero, although her victory has been taken to heart by many Americans who don't know an arabesque from an attitude but are gladdened by the idea of gold from Moscow. "It's still a shock," she said. "I didn't expect this." But her fans disagreed. "We think you're a hero!" came the shouts from the crowd gathered around her.
"It does have political overtones in this day and age," said her brother, Steve, who said that all week long acquaintances would come up to him and say, "'I didn't realize that little American girl was your sister. We've been rooting for her all week long.'"
After the press conference, McKerrow walked down the long hall to waiting well-wishers, television cameras filming her every step as the crowd pressed forward to greet her with a shower of confetti and a gentle rain of kisses. Soon her slender arms were filled with bouquets of flowers and she was busy signing autographs.
"I just think this is the most wonderful thing," said gray-haired Suprano Mila, who used to play piano for a ballet school in Yugoslavia and who came from Silver Spring to see McKerrow. "It has made everyone happy."
Soon McKerrow, Dow and McKerrow's family were settled in a silver limousine, waiting to be whisked away. McKerrow sat back in the unaccustomed luxury of the big car, brushing the confetti from her long blond hair. How long such celebrity would last and where it would take McKerrow were questions that would not be decided last night, but her brother Steve was not worried about how it would affect her. "I tend to think she has been so directed for so long into her art that this won't change her," he said. "She's really a down-to-earth little lady."
Julie Miles, a friend and fellow dancer at the Washington Ballet, agreed. "It's been a true Cinderella story," she said. "But she's still going to be practicing five and six hours a day and working her bones off with the rest of us. It's not going to be just roses from here on in."