The Last Taboos

What we all think about, but never talk about

On Refusing to Be a Victim

What a paralyzed dancer teaches us about the power of will

She was one of the world’s most extraordinary ballerinas—magnetic, witty, passionate, thrilling to behold, even in grainy old footage and still photographs. Her legs were longer than me. George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, the premier choreographers of the twentieth century, created ballets for her and fell in love with her; she became Balanchine’s muse and his fourth wife.

Then, at the height of her glory, 27-year-old Tanaquil le Clercq was struck down by polio. Her case was desperate. At first it was feared that she would die, but she survived. This gravity-defying dancer spent several months confined to an iron lung, followed by years of grueling rehabilitation. Battling despair and working with the same determination that had made her a star, she eventually got back the use of her arms, her hands and her upper body, but not of those magnificent legs. She spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. She never danced, or even walked, again.

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A powerful new film, “Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil le Clercq” tells Le Clercq’s life story through footage, photographs, excerpts from her correspondence, and interviews with her partners and friends. One of her greatest partners, Jacques d’Amboise, now 80, holds back tears when he discusses the tragedy that befell her only ten years into her professional career.

But Le Clercq’s life was not ultimately tragic. She was not expected to live past age 40, but she lived until 71—she died in 2000—with verve and grace. How did she prevail?

“Her regard was all acceptance, forgiveness,” one of her intimates said of her in later life. I think she went far beyond either of these. It seems to me, from the evidence of the film, that what really characterized her was her conscious, willed transcendence, her insistence that her emotional, if not her physical, fate would be determined by herself alone, and not by what befell her: She was defiant, and she refused to be a victim. She retained, and even enhanced, her identity as a woman and as an artist as she aged. She danced through her life, living to the fullest, expressing her personality despite a catastrophe that could easily have turned her into a martyr, a whiner, or a dependent guilt-inducer. Her creativity and joie de vivre are at once heartbreaking and inspiring.

I believe that Le Clercq took four actions that saved her from bitterness, professional victimhood, and over-reliance on others:

1. She went to see a ballet.

As soon as she recovered sufficiently and worked through the first waves of terror, shock, rage and despair—excerpts from her letters read in the film document her states of mind—Le Clercq decided to attend the ballet again even though she was now a spectator instead of a star. To reimmerse herself in the world of the art she loved, she willingly allowed herself to be viewed publically as a cripple. She had to know that people would pity her, and rise above it. She also had to overcome her sense of unfairness and her pain at seeing her able-bodied colleagues perform the roles that had been created for her. In order to work through such a loss, and retain something precious from it, it is necessary to face it head on.

2. She divorced George Balanchine.

Balanchine felt guilty and devastated by his wife’s plight, and worked hard but ineffectively to rehabilitate her, refusing to accept that she would never dance again. Eventually he moved on and chose a fifth and final muse to love, ballerina Suzanne Farrell. As soon as she was able to care for herself, Le Clercq decided to leave him and live alone. She did not want him to stay with her out of guilt rather than devotion, for that would have reinforced her victim status. Instead of moving in with her controlling mother, she chose a life of independence, which took immense effort and fortitude.

3. She began teaching ballet.

One of her superb partners, Arthur Mitchell, the first professional black ballet dancer and founder of The Dance Theatre of Harlem, asked Le Clercq to teach at his school; Ballanchine had not made her a similar offer because he could not stand to see her in a wheelchair. She had to be cajoled, but Mitchell persuaded her to enhance her legacy by teaching other dancers. The footage of her using, as one student put it, “her arms as legs and her hands as feet” shows her passion as a teacher, and her influence is palpable in clips of the ballerinas she trained. To do this she had to overcome yet again her envy of younger, able-bodied students, and to confront but to refuse to be impeded by her physical limitations. Resolving her grief at her own career cut so tragically short by so generous and wise a course of action allowed her to be an artist again, not just a spectator.

4. She did not mince words.

In the film, one of her friends recounts the time he took her to La Scala, the great opera house in Milan, and failed to notice a small step on the way out. The wheelchair fell over, and she was pitched out. Fortunately, nothing was lost save dignity—but Le Clercq did not passively lie there: “Get me off this fucking floor,” she said, with vehemence but not outrage. Her friend laughed in admiration as he told the story, which demonstrates that she did not try to be a saint, but let her frustration out when appropriate with healthy bravado and no shame.

In the last scenes of the documentary, Le Clercq is seen in her sixties, reclining on the ground at a picnic with friends, looking elegant and radiant. Her silver hair frames her striking face, glowing with delight.

Her triumph of the will epitomizes the spirit expressed in “Invictus,” the famous poem by Victorian poet, critic and editor William Henley—another person who overcame unspeakable physical tragedy by force of character; tuberculosis of the bone starting at the age of twelve caused first one of his legs to be amputated below the knee, and then the other. This was his response:

…In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed….

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Jeanne Safer, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in New York City for 40 years, is the author of 5 books on taboo topics.

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