05/04/2012 01:49 pm ET Updated Jul 04, 2012

Muscle Memory: A Tribute to Moscelyne Larkin and the Legacy of the Ballet Russe

As a Midwesterner who grew up in Oklahoma in the 1980s, there is no reason that I should have had access to high quality, classical ballet training. Thanks to the Ballet Russe I did.

Although Balanchine dominates the 20th century scene of American ballet, for Midwesterners, the legacy of the subsequent Ballet Russes to grow from Diaghilev's roots was felt more intimately. In 2011, I dove into Jennifer Homans' book, Apollo's Angels, greatly anticipating learning more about the Ballet Russe companies of Colonel de Basil and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, only to find two pages devoted to these companies whose legacy is felt so acutely for countless Midwestern ballet dancers. I longed for the in-depth treatment provided by Lili Cockerille Livingston in her history of the five celebrated Native American ballerinas (Maria and Marjorie Tallchief, Yvonne Chouteau, Rosella Hightower, and Moscelyne Larkin) who first danced with these companies and who then returned to the states in the 1960s to begin schools and companies of their own.

In January of 2012, the first of that generation, Miguel Terekhov, died. With his wife Yvonne Chouteau, Terekhov founded and directed the school of dance and company at the University of Oklahoma where I trained as a student. After his death, his legacy of teaching and choreography was celebrated and remembered, and it began to sink in that these men and women who for many of us seemed indestructible were in fact mortal.

And now, in April of 2012, death comes closer to me; to my childhood teacher and one of the celebrated treasures of Oklahoma, Moscelyne Larkin. But her death is not the first loss many of us who loved her experienced with her. As I read her obituary and the remembrances written of her I recalled the last time I spent with her several years ago when I returned to introduce my husband and young son to her. One of my worst fears of loss came true; Ms. Larkin could not remember me.

Ms. Larkin was my ballet teacher, and the studio, her home. Although she toured the world with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancing with such legends as Agnes de Mille, her home was Oklahoma where she married the love of her life, fellow dancer Roman Jasinski, and where, through a school and company, they made a home for ballet.

As we walked into the hallowed halls of the ballet studio on 33rd and Harvard, I felt as though I was walking into my soul. I am countless different people when I walk through the studio door, while I assumed that Ms. Larkin would always be the same. I am a scared five-year-old at Nutcracker rehearsal, who is overwhelmed by the corps de ballet and afraid of disappointing Ms. Larkin with her fierce, dark eyes. I am a shy eight-year-old who never speaks to anyone and who is challenged by Ms. Larkin to speak up for myself. I am a gawky 13-year-old who is weak, struggling, jealous, and fighting the natural instincts of my growing body and who is reminded by Ms. Larkin that tall women simply have more of themselves to love. I am a confident college student, who finally feels the proud eyes of Ms. Larkin doting on me and my dancing. I still feel unworthy, but bask in the glow of her pride. I am a young single woman who has left the daily discipline of classes and rehearsals and return to meet with her as a young woman training for the ministry, trying to make sense of my artistic past. How she spoke of her deceased husband, Mr. J., the dreams she'd had that have made life bearable, and the ways that her Buddhist faith have shaped the way she teaches ballet. Great clarity was gained on my part, and now, regret that I didn't do more.

Why didn't I probe deeper into her life of faith and dance? I was so naïve to think that she was indestructible, she'd always be around. She is Ms. Larkin: one constant in a world ever in flux. And now the opportunity has passed, and she sits in a chair in her son's office and she does not remember. She is alone, and so I am alone. She forgets me, she forgets herself. I grieve all the lost opportunities.

Her son walks us through the studio showing us the changes that have been made. I fight the urge to run to my place at the barre where I stood for so many years. The place where I sat fairy princess-style, watching Ms. Larkin skip around the room, a delicate crystal prism dangling from her fingertips. As the rainbows of light flickered in our eyes, she invited us to imagine that we too could be prisms, magically transforming music into movement. And so we'd stand at our assigned places, bending, stretching, kicking, and waiting to turn into rainbows.

Her son gently escorts his mother on our tour, she barely notices the change of scenery.

Alzheimer's is a cruel, cruel disease.

Before we leave, I pause to write a note to one of the other teachers. Ms. Larkin stands behind the receptionist's counter and I long to see the true Ms. Larkin, just once, if only for a fleeting moment. It feels as though I have been dismembered when I no longer see the best version of myself in her eyes.

From my limited work with Alzheimer's patients in hospice care I know that many times the only way to connect is to delve deep into the past to our earliest memories. The oldest memories are often the most accessible. I begin to tell her of how I am teaching ballet and how I use her "5 Positions Song" to teach the basic five positions of the feet and arms. She still looks blank but I forge ahead. I begin to sing and move, "First position and second position..." By the time I get to third position her eyes connect with mine and she begins to sing and move in synch with me. As we come to the closing pas de burre her eyes twinkle and she smiles at me -- the true Ms. Larkin smile that always said to me, "I am pleasantly surprised that you've made me proud of you."

Then she was gone, lost in her own world again. For one moment, for me, what had been lost had been remembered. As we left the studio, there was a quiet sadness within me and yet a breathless thankfulness for the gift of muscle memory that can remember us when our minds have failed us, for the sinews that can hold us in community long after our minds have severed all ties to reality. The movement of the studio must make a home within us in order to remind us daily to live fully in the present moment, thankful for this breath, this step, this person beside us, this dance that is the breath of life made visible.

I learned that hot August day to trust my muscles and the memories that lie buried within them. Thank you, Ms. Larkin.

"Night is drawing nigh. How long the road is. But, for all the time the journey has taken, how you have needed every second of it." Dag Hammarskjold

Rev. Amy Ziettlow danced with the Tulsa School of Ballet for more than 18 years. To read more, visit