Making way for ballet

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When Herci Marsden and her first husband went separate ways back in the mid-1970s, the prima ballerina faced an uncertain future. She refused to flinch, however, and secured approval to refinance the couple’s real estate holdings, which allowed her to keep their ballet school operating.

“The bank really believed in me because of all I had done since 1958,” said the 75-year-old Marsden, who came to the United States in that year from Croatia. In addition to an impressive string of leading roles in ballets such as “Giselle” and “Destiny,” she co-founded the Brae Crest School of Ballet and helped to establish the State Ballet of Rhode Island (SBRI) as the founding prima ballerina.

herci marsdenFurthermore, in 1966, Marsden introduced classical ballet to the students at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, which she taught in the College of Human Science and Services’ Department of Physical Education Health and Recreation for nearly 30 years. URI was the first college in the Ocean State to offer classical ballet as an accredited course that helped so many student-athletes develop their skills.

Marsden and her children frequently watched televised sports, and after a good play on the basketball court or the football or soccer field, the matriarch would frequently make comments such as, “‘I taught him to jump like that,’” said her daughter, Ana Fox, 55.

Fox and her daughter, 34-year-old Shana Marceau Fox, work with Marsden at Brae Crest and SBRI. Marsden is artistic director and choreographer for the company while Ana is the assistant to the director and resident choreographer and Shana is a resident choreographer. They love and admire Herci, who works seven days per week year-round despite her age. Not even the most recent heat wave with feel-like temperatures of 100 degrees or more could keep the septuagenarian away from the Brae Crest outdoor ballet camp.

“I love it. It is my way of life. … I will never stop,” Herci said of running Brae Crest and the ballet troupe. That same fire burns inside her daughter and granddaughter. “It is our passion, our dream. Our passion chose us, and what we chose to do with it is the school and the State Ballet of Rhode Island,” said Shana, who was the first female member of the Lincoln High School hockey team.

“I don’t know anything else,” Ana said. “When I’m doing this, I’m alive. It’s my life. … If I’m not doing this, I’m out to dinner with my husband and I am talking about something pertaining to the school or the state ballet; or I’m out for a brisk walk in the morning and I have one of those aha moments about something here.”

While Brae Crest is Herci’s bread and butter, the state ballet is just as important to the award-winning dancer and her descendant co-workers. According to Ana, the SBRI is the lone semi-professional civic regional ballet company in Rhode Island and one of the oldest in the United States. The company was founded in 1960, and its mission is to create, present, preserve and extend the revered repertoire of classical dancing to the public through exciting performances and educational programs.

“We have a wonderful following because of our rich history,” Ana said. “Our audiences tell us our dancers look like they are not bored. Audience members can’t get over that they are getting a two hundred percent effort from our performers.”

SBRI stages two full-length ballets each season. During this 54th season, the company’s traditional “Coppelia” will be performed on Dec. 20 at 10 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 21 at 1:30 p.m. at Rhode Island College in Providence. Tickets are $20 for seniors age 62 and older; $30 for other adults: and $16 for children age 12 and younger. A second ballet that has not been announced will be performed on March 21 and 22.

As an educational tool, the company conducts Project Ballet Coffee Hour — a free four-series, in-house family friendly event held in SBRI’s historic ballet studio at 52 Sherman Ave. The series offers attendees an interactive and close look at what it takes to produce a ballet, including costume design and fitting, music composition and choreography. The coffee hours are 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 19, Nov. 16, March 15 and April 12.

For information about additional SBRI performances such as the one planned for the Pawtucket Arts Festival, go online to www.stateballet.com.

Herci and Ana have no intention of bringing down the curtain on their careers. They are having too much fun continuing their mission of teaching ballet to students of all ages and exposing as many people as possible to the art form.

“You can’t retire; you have to make transitions,” Ana said. It is likely Shana will dance in their footsteps.

Salute to SeniorsEditor’s note: Salute to Seniors is a feature aimed at celebrating the many significant contributions and accomplishments of men and women age 50 and beyond.

Salute to Seniors is sponsored by the Bankers Life and Casualty Company regional office in Warwick and “Senior Digest.”

To nominate someone for a salute, send the person’s name, address, telephone number and reason for nomination to Senior Digest, 36 French Drive, Seekonk, Mass., 02771, or to sdpublisher@gmail.com.

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Comments

  1. Kerri Sankey says:

    Thank you for this truly inspiring story about Herci Marsden and Brae Crest. Although my daughter is fairly new to Brae Crest, she and I are truly inspired by the commitment and tireless energy that these ladies give continuously to such a beautiful art form. We feel so priviledged to be able to work with Ms. Herci, Ms. Ana, and Ms. Shauna!

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