Remembering Sarah Tayir, Ballet Dancer and Teacher

October 17, 2018

Sarah Tayir will live on as a legend in ballet. Here are some recollections and anecdotes, shared by a few of the countless people who loved her and appreciated her gift of both ballet and teaching, describing some perspectives on her life as it unfolded.

Sarah Tayir described her early training and career in very humble ways to Sara Jane Gould, professional dancer, coach and student in Miss Sarah’s class for many years.

Sarah was the youngest of four kids. Recalling her first memory of hearing music, she was sitting in someone’s lap, listening to a Brahms piece. (Decades later, Miss Sarah used the music of Brahms often in her classes). At the age of 3, when she “could barely reach to turn on the radio,” she just “fell in love” with music. She would dance around and “it felt so good it had to be wrong.”

Photo courtesy Honora Domines

A few years later, at the age of 10, Miss Sarah went to a class to watch her 13 year-old sister. A woman from the Ukraine had come to town to teach. Coincidentally, the woman’s husband was a pianist with American Ballet Theatre. The class was at a recreation center. The room was carpeted, there were no mirrors, and no barre. The students actually used the backs of chairs for their barre! Miss Sarah “couldn’t sit still” and asked to join the class.

Miss Sarah took tap, piano, gymnastics and baton lessons. She was a drum majorette in high school! Incidentally, the well-respected choreographer, Kevin Carlisle, went to the same school. When Agnes de Mille came to town to choreograph “Rodeo,” Sarah was “the only kid who could do the time step.”

Sarah loved to gather the “neighbor kids” and put on shows in the backyard. The clothes drying on the clothesline were the stage curtains.

Photo courtesy Honora Domines

Sarah’s parents made her wait until she was 18 before she could go to New York…alone. There she studied at ABT, and Robert Joffrey, himself, taught her petite allegro.

When Sara Jane Gould remarked to Miss Sarah how impressed she was to hear about all she had accomplished as a child, she answered, “I was fearless!”

In these short glimpses of Sarah’s first two decades, we see the emergence of an impassioned and determined artist.

Miss Sarah, as she was fondly known by her students at the Anna Cheselka Dance Center, inspired every dancer from novices to professionals for over four decades.

Erna Toback, PhD, remembers her very first class (of hundreds to follow) in this way:

“I took my very first ballet class with Sarah when I was an insecure, intimidated 35 year-old ballet beginner. Had it not been for Sarah’s subtle, kind support and encouragement, I never would have made it through the first class. Decades later while recovering from an injury unrelated to ballet—and discouraged because I was unable to fully participate in class—Sarah came over to me and said, ‘Erna, just come to class to listen to the music. Forget about everything else,’ and laughed.”

To this day, whenever there are “reasons” not to attend ballet class, Erna hears Sarah’s voice reminding her to get to class “just to listen to the music.” Although she is experiencing Sarah’s passing as a deeply profound loss, she will “treasure Sarah’s voice and her words, her kindness and empathy, artistry and grace—along with the beautiful music she chose to inspire our dance—and will keep them in my pocket every day, wherever I go.”

Miss Sarah’s classes focused on musicality, filling the air with music from Bach to Joplin, Schubert to movie scores. She created choreography that was at the same time simple and difficult, beautiful and challenging. With an over-riding personal grace and superb understanding of what makes dancers shine, Miss Sarah understood the essentials of technique and stamina, expressing the music in movement, a passion for ballet, and a feeling of community. She usually wore pastels—light blue, pink and peach—always with pink tights. She led stretches on the center floor. She loved port de bras, and every class had one just after the barre. Miss Sarah focused on flowing transitions, and wanted each student to enjoy ballet, and lose the anxiety of perfection. Kind of like Nike, “Just do it”!

Photo courtesy Honora Domines

Jonette Swider, a professional dancer and coach, recalls her time with Miss Sarah in this way:

“Miss Sarah began coaching me when I was in my early 20’s. She taught me so much and I brought her inspiration with me throughout my performing career. I so admire her lifelong dedication to the ballet world. Dancer, teacher, and mentor to so many. I will never forget the gorgeous développé á la seconde. She would flow effortlessly into it, with her leg the highest in the room at age 80! Thank you Miss Sarah. You will be missed!”

Dr. Paula Thomson, professor of dance at California State University, Northridge, and author of “Creativity and the Performing Artist: Behind the Mask” remembers Miss Sarah as “a gifted and inspiring teacher. Every class was infused with technical accuracy and exquisite musicality. She continued the tradition and love of classical ballet for the many generations she taught.” To quote Miss Sarah, “Remember to dance—it is how we express life.”

Ronnie Cavalluzzi, one of Sarah’s students, put her recollection into these words: “Sarah danced in the light, and brought all of us who knew her and followed her, into that light. She was a beautiful dancer and an inspirational teacher; she was a guide into the breathtaking inseparable worlds of music and dance. She is already missed more than words can express.”

I was lucky to study with Miss Sarah over many years, fulfilling my childhood dream to learn ballet and pointe. For all of us, she leaves a legacy of love to those who were touched by her ballet magic, grace, wisdom and kind heart. We are extremely grateful for the opportunity to know her as a dancer, teacher and woman.