Mississippi hops to its toes
Every four years, the state rolls out the red carpet for the ballet world.
At Thalia Mara Hall here in the heart of Mississippi's capital, Lynda Wright has hit a language snag. Ms. Wright, a local volunteer, is busy checking in dancers for a technical rehearsal. Competitors have come from around the world for this year's USA International Ballet Competition, and sometimes things get lost in translation.Skip to next paragraph
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Loudly and slowly, in her thick Dixie drawl, Wright introduces a couple representing Ukraine and Russia. "This is Viktor and Natalya. No English."
Viktor, leaning against a wall, nonchalantly informs Wright, "Oh, we speak English, we just can't understand you."
Laughing at the episode, Wright observes: "They speak English; they just don't speak Southern."
Not that Mississippi is a cultural backwater. In recent years, curators in Jackson have collaborated with counterparts in Russia, France, and Spain to put on stunning museum exhibits here. And the University of Mississippi in Oxford draws scholars from all over the world to its annual Faulkner conference.
Still, for people outside the dancing community, it might come as a surprise that this Deep South state, known more for its love of football and beauty pageants, is a mecca for future stars of the ballet.
Every four years, young dancers, some still students, some already professionals, descend here to vie for medals, cash, and scholarships in an "Olympics of ballet." Jackson plays rotating host, along with places like Moscow and Varna, Bulgaria, as hundreds of Mississippians, from teens to retirees, spread some of their famous Southern hospitality. Many wouldn't know a pirouette from a plié, but they help with everything from ushering to throwing parties to driving the dancers around and fetching them water in the sweltering summer heat.
"We're kind of their family when they're away from home," says Ellen Gully, who leads the crew staffing the International Village at Belhaven College, where the dancers are housed and fed. The phone rings and soon she is making arrangements at a pool in town where the dancers can go swimming.
"This is the fun place to be, because you get to know the dancers," says Steve Peterson, co-chairman of the International Village. As he fields questions from the competitors, Mr. Peterson asks for their autographs on the competition booklet containing their biographies and photos. "It helps me learn their names and faces."
Across the bustling lobby, in a long row that is continually renewed, baskets, plastic tubs, and Styrofoam ice chests overflow with gifts for the dancers from Jackson families who have signed up as hosts. The offerings include fruit, bottled water, and a favorite Mississippi hors d'oeuvre, cheese straws, as well as items requested by the dancers.
"It's so nice that people would care about someone they don't even know," says Russian contestant Natalia Vorontsova, who was shivering at night in the air-conditioning of her dorm room until her host family sent a blanket.