A portrait of Fanny Elssler, Courtesy Olga Smoak.

#TBT: All About Romantic Ballerina Fanny Elssler, Plus a Brand New Recreation of Her Famous "La Cachucha"

This Thursday, we're throwing it all the way back to Fanny Elssler, one of the most famous ballerinas of the Romantic period. Elssler may have graced stages far before the age of reality TV and Instagram, but her story is anything but dry. Last week, the Historic New Orleans Collection put on a symposium on the history of dance in New Orleans, of which Elssler played a pivotal role. We spoke with dance historian Olga Smoak to find out more about why this ballerina is still so exciting... nearly 200 years later.

But first, watch a recreation of Elssler's famous "La Cachucha," which she performed in New Orleans in 1841, danced by Rebecca Allen at the HNOC last week. Note the extreme tilts of the torso; they're part of what made Elssler such a captivating dancer in her day.


​Who was Fanny Elssler? 

Elssler was born in Vienna in 1810 to a family of artists; her father worked for the composer Joseph Haydn. Elssler's family was very large, so according to Smoak, her parents sent her and her sister Therese to the Imperial School of Ballet so that they could save money by feeding fewer mouths. When she was roughly 16, she was taken to Naples for further study, had an affair with the Prince of Salerno, and became pregnant. Due to his royal status she was unable to marry him, so she returned to Vienna and gave birth to a son, Franz. She immediately gave him up and turned her focus back to her career. "She never felt she gave him the love he deserved; he had a very difficult life," says Smoak.

After her success in Naples, she was invited to Berlin to perform, and soon fell in love with a young man her age, and became pregnant again. Next, she made her way to London, where she met a kind woman named Mrs. Grote whose husband was a member of parliament; three months later, the Grotes agreed to adopt Elssler's newly born daughter, though Elssler maintained contact with her. Now, at age 19, Elssler's career took off in earnest.

Path to Stardom

Up until that time, the most famous ballerina of the day was Marie Taglioni. In 1834, Taglioni was the leading prima of the company that is today the Paris Opéra Ballet. The director thought that she was becoming too demanding, and wanted to provide her with a foil. He invited Elssler to Paris and gave her a contract with the company, creating a rivalry with Taglioni. "It was the most important company," says Smoak. "It's what every dancer at the time wanted." Though many believe that Taglioni was the stronger dancer of the two, Elssler's novelty helped her to take off. She found her niche with the Spanish "La Cachucha" variation from the 1836 ballet Le Diable boiteux, and adapted the steps to her liking. "She really hit the jackpot with that dance," says Smoak. "She became so famous in it that people took casts of her foot, made porcelain figurines of her, and chocolates in her name." While Taglioni was known for her ethereality and the quality of her jumps, Elssler was celebrated for her sharp, quick footwork.

Elssler in Cracovienne. Portrait Courtesy Olga Smoak.

Elssler in America 

By the late 1930s, Elssler had a repertoire of ballets, and spent her summers traveling to other cities to perform, much like dancers do with their summer layoffs today. At the time, she was involved with a count she'd met backstage. "He was her so-called protector," explains Smoak. The count had to leave the country, and was nervous leaving her alone, so in 1841 he connected with a producer in Philadelphia and arranged a tour to the U.S. Elssler took a leave of absence from the Paris Opéra, and set sail across the Atlantic with a male partner, a maid and a coachman in tow. When she arrived in New York, she hired a handful of dancers to join her on a tour of three cities: New York, Philadelphia and New Orleans. "People expected her not only to dance 'La Cachucha' but to dance the major ballets she did at the Paris Opéra," says Smoak. "She had to adapt much of what she danced for small spaces, with very few dancers and musicians." Nevertheless, Elssler was an immediate hit. "Audiences went berserk," says Smoak.

The New Orleans Connection

When Elssler made her way to New Orleans, audiences welcomed her with open arms. Smoak attributes her great success there to the city's origins. "New Orleans was never an Anglo Saxon city," she says. "It went directly from the French to the Spanish to the United States." Elssler was popular with both groups: People of Spanish descent were wowed by her Spanish-influenced "La Cachucha," and people of French descent were thrilled to see a dancer from the great Paris Opéra Ballet. While based in New Orleans, Elssler also toured to Cuba and to Washington, DC, where Congress closed so that all of the members could attend her performance. Elssler stayed in the U.S. for a total of two years; after realizing how much money she could make on tour in America (between $500-$1,000 a night; roughly $15,000-$30,000 today), she ultimately gave up her position in Paris. Eventually Elssler returned to Europe, and ultimately retired near Hamburg, dying of cancer in 1878.

"Elssler is an incredible symbol of the 19th Century," says Smoak. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!


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Here, Ball and two other experts share their advice for how to make the most of this precious opportunity to dive deep into dance—and how to handle complications that may get in the way, like injury and drama.

1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

Summer intensives offer a preview of company life: You'll be dancing in a variety of styles over the course of the day, and all day, everyday. But that doesn't mean you have to be company-ready on day one! Though the first day may be filled with placement classes, try not to approach every class as an audition. "This year has taught us that the work is the important thing," says Ball. "Let go of trying to impress. The best impression I ever receive as a teacher is when I see someone receptive to doing things differently, even if that means taking one step backwards initially, to be able to take two steps forward by the end of the summer."

Angelica Generosa, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, clearly made a splash during her first of three summers at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance. At 14, she was cast to dance the pas de deux from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes in the final performance. Generosa describes her younger self as "very eager." She'll be a guest teacher at Chautauqua this summer, and says that a similar eagerness catches her attention: "Dedication, and willingness to try. That twinkle in the eyes when a step is really challenging."

2. Make Friends

Even if friends from your year-round school will be with you this summer, branch out. During breaks at the studio, you may be tempted to spend time on your phone. "Take your headphones off," suggests Margaret Severin-Hansen, director of Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. "Share that ballet video with the person sitting next to you! Their eyes might see it differently; you could learn something. Or find that you have other things in common, too."

Do things outside the studio, too, even if your social circle is limited for safety reasons to a "pod" of classmates. "Sign up for activities," says Generosa. Go on that weekend shopping trip, or out for ice cream. "Be open," she says. "These are people you might see along the way in your future."

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Simon Ball leads class at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.

Courtesy CPYB

3. Stay Healthy

"The first week is tough—you're going to be sore," says Ball. "Prepare yourself." He means that literally. Before your program begins, ramp up cross-training, especially cardio to build your stamina. Severin-Hansen recommends you also keep dancing. It no longer matters that your regular school might be on break: We now know it's possible to take virtual classes from home or in a rented studio. If you're on pointe, make sure to put the shoes on every day, at the very least for some relevés. Keep the skin on your toes tough; the last thing you want is to be sidelined by blisters.

If you are recovering from an injury or managing something persistent like tendonitis, take action even further in advance. Find out if your intensive provides access to physical therapy, and if not, make a plan before you leave home. Learn exercises and massage techniques that you can do on your own, and ask about virtually checking in with your regular doctor or PT. Once you arrive, says Ball, communicate with your instructors. "Chances are it's a common ballet injury that teachers understand. They'll be able to help you."

During her summer intensives, Generosa often suffered flare-ups of inflammation. "I knew the tendonitis in my knees was from over turning out, and in my ankles from lifting my heels in plié." She was able to alleviate some of her pain by dancing more thoughtfully, addressing those habits. She also got creative about taking care of her tendons during off-hours. "I basically did ice baths in Chautauqua Lake."

4. Deal With Disappointment Constructively

Whether you're placed in a lower level than you'd like or were hoping for a soloist role that went to someone else, disappointment is understandable. Try, on your part, to understand too. The faculty may believe you'll thrive more in that particular group, or see a technical issue better solved by not pushing you too fast. If you're not sure exactly what you should be working on, ask. "Trust that you can make the most of your experience, whatever level you're in," says Ball. "Don't be afraid of the conversation."

5. Avoid Drama

Competition is inevitable, but unproductive competition is unnecessary, and bullying unacceptable. Severin-Hansen lays down a very clear guideline: "Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable." If you hear or see anything that bothers you—whether directed at you or someone else—don't hesitate to speak up. "If there's even one person creating drama, you feel it in the class. Summer is short. There's no room for that." Tell the resident advisor in the dorms, or bring the problem to the school administration.

Angelica Generosa performs an arabessque elong\u00e9 on pointe while her partner stands behind her holding her waist and with his left leg in tendu. She holds her left hand on her hip and extends her right arm out to the side with her palm up. Angelica wears a purple leotard, black tights and a white Romantic tutu while Kyle wears a yellow shirt, black tights and tan slippers.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Angelica Generosa (shown here in rehearsal with Kyle Davis) made notes of corrections she'd received and variations she'd worked on during her summer intensives to help retain what she had learned.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

6. Fuel the Long Day

Depending on your housing arrangement this summer, you may be on your own for buying or preparing your own meals. Generosa recalls her first time living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food: "I wanted to try everything: pizza, chicken tenders, the salad bar, the dessert section—that was also my introduction to coffee." She found, however, that caffeine and sugar rushes would give way to energy crashes, and soon enough her better knowledge prevailed. "I told myself, 'Angelica, get your protein, vegetables, complex carbs—the right kind of energy.'"

Masking requirements may make snacking at the studios slightly more difficult. Nonetheless, there will almost certainly be somewhere you can safely have a nibble in between classes, whether that's a dancers' lounge or socially distanced in the studio itself. Make sure you always have something with you that's easy to munch on during breaks. Ball recommends protein bars or fruits and veggies. "Hydrating is huge," he adds, and suggests bringing packets of powdered electrolyte supplements to add to your water.

7. Retain Corrections

Take a moment each evening, Severin-Hansen advises, to write a few things down. "Say the whole class got a general correction, like 'Use your head.' The person who takes notes will think about it: 'When could I have used my head?' It's all about how you come back the next day and improve."

Generosa set a goal for herself to get better every day. To accomplish this, she would stay late to practice, she says, "so my body could adjust to what I was trying to achieve in that class." If you're inclined to follow her example, ask a friend to practice with you. You can film each other to get a glimpse of your own progress.

At the end of her Chautauqua summers, Generosa made notes of some things she had worked on and which variations she'd learned. "Then it wasn't like I left and that was that. I brought the summer experience with me, for my whole year."

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