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The patter of toe shoes, the aroma of onions

By Tessa / June 30, 1986

TOURING America as the youngest member of the famous Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1939, my mother, Yolanda Lacca, was chosen to perform a solo as one of the dreamlike creatures in ``Les Sylphides,'' a well-known ballet about a young Poet lost in a maze of Romance, his nocturnal plight enhanced by Fr'ederic Chopin's breathtaking music and Michel Fokine's choreography . . . yet, just before this extraordinary occasion presented itself, during the company's halt in Waco, Texas, my mother experienced what proved to be A Major Danger To The Evening's Performance, that is, Madame Mathilda Gelespova, in person! Madame Gelespova was an imposing, large-boned Russian whom life's events had brought all the way to the freeborn States from the Ural Mountains in snowy Russia. Tall and taut, always arrayed in black, Madame Gelespova marched onward in her leather boots sustained by the necessity of supervising the artistic achievements of her daughter, Tania.

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As a dance, Madame Gelespova could certainly be compared to a czardas.

Mama and Tania were best friends and shared every conceivable secret under the sun; but not so their mothers, each of whom considered the other with just as much as a condescending nod. As the only two mothers ``touring,'' they thought it wise to keep dignity within personal reach but alas, a ballet troupe roaming through new frontiers by train was not the best place to act aloof. Occasional squabbles would erupt, only to melt away just as soon.

Landing in Waco on a glorious, clear-skied morning, Mama, Tania, Madame Gelespova, and Mama's mother, Eug'enie, were faced with the alarming priority of finding a hotel.

For the non-English-speaking refugees, each detail concerning practicality was viewed as an insurmountable problem; great consultations in Russian preceded a choice, and after much deliberation all four would file into the hotel lobby captained by Madame Gelespova proudly carrying three or four enormous bundles from which emerged her cherished kitchen utensils. Glaring straight at the astonished clerk, Madame Gelespova would thump her bundles beside her and demand a room; almost always the room was granted.

Between the hustle and bustle of Novelty and obeying their mothers' orders, Mama and Tania often managed to elude restrictions and enjoy everyday views of America: grits for breakfast, Nehi fruit-flavored soft drinks, corn on the cob, and barbecued beef were wonders to two young girls having just escaped from wartime Europe. Not even the Dust Bowl that was sending millions off toward California distracted their attention from hot fudge and ice cream, an unquestionable delight.

But, most of all, they were artists under contract to impresario Sol Hurok and as such, Duty on Scene was scheduled at 8 on the dot the night they arrived in Waco. Reaching the theater two hours before the performance, the corps de ballet and soloists proceeded with the intricate dress and makeup ritual.

Mentally rehearsing her part, Mama sat in front of the huge, lit-up mirror smoothing a layer of white foundation over her cheeks; a pair of thick black eyelashes followed, glued to her eyelids with surgical precision, the finishing touch being a wreath of camellias pinned to her hair as a crown.

Now, appearing from a cloud of glistening tulle she no longer resembled the 13-year-old ice-cream lover, but a ghost-like, whimsical beauty ready to light up the sky in Waco. Meanwhile, backstage things were popping. . . .