Magical Russian-born ballerina and teacher dies at 89

She was known to students around the world simply as Madame: a 90-pound powerhouse with a Russian accent, an incredibly flexible body — even into her 80s — and a flowing scarf perpetually around her neck.

Madame Valentina Belova, born into Jewish aristocracy in pre-revolutionary Russia, spent much of her life running from violent conflicts. Still, she became a world-famous ballerina, a ground-breaking choreographer and a teacher who inspired students with her own emotional tales, culled from 75 years in the dance world.

Belova died Sunday, Feb. 2 in Santa Cruz. She was 89.

"She had a flair. Everything she did was with a flourish. That delighted children especially. She was magical," recalls Maria Stolz, who first worked with Belova 20 years ago at West Coast Dance in Santa Cruz.

Stolz now works at Temple Beth El in Aptos, where Belova was a member. The dancer, who lived for years in a mobile home near Pleasure Point, moved in with the Stolz family when her health began to decline and she stopped teaching her daily stretch class six months ago. She died in the Stolz home.

Because Stolz cared for the aging dancer, she knew secrets that not even Belova's son, Peter, a Santa Cruz musician, ever knew.

Stolz says Belova's body was covered with scars that the dancer would never discuss, except to say they were the legacy of a year spent in a Moroccan internment camp during World War II, where she was tortured.

"She was basically running her entire life, because she was a Jew," says Stolz.

When she was 10 and vacationing with her family in Latvia, the Bolsheviks took over and nationalized industry and commerce. Because Belova's father had been a wealthy textile mill owner, the family couldn't go home again. They left for Crimea-Yalta, where Belova began studying with a former Bolshoi Ballet dancer.

By age 14, she was dancing to support her family, who immigrated to Poland and then Berlin, where Belova began her professional career in earnest. She was also a principal with the Royal French and Flemish operas.

She choreographed ballets for her own company, Group Belova, was awarded the Golden Medal of the city of Brussels for a work based on Flemish paintings and was featured in Europe's first television broadcast in 1938.

But when World War II broke out, she was forced to run again. She and her husband, Sasha Belenky, escaped from Belgium and fled to Paris, to Spain and to Morocco, where she was held for a year.

Two years later, she came to the United States and began performing and teaching for the New York Ballet Club and other companies. She taught at Sullins College in Bristol, Va.; Mercyhurst College in Buffalo, N.Y.; and the Fairmont Center of Creative and Performing Arts in Cleveland.

"As a teacher she was an inspiration, both emotionally and physically," says Ron Kumin, a North Carolina theater producer who once hired Belova to be ballet mistress at the Fairmont Center.

Kumin's wife studied under Belova and became a prima ballerina and teacher herself. The couple frequently visited Belova in Santa Cruz.

"She could do anything she wanted her students to do. She would stand at the barre in first position and do a leg lift and hit her ear with her heel. That's amazing for a person of any age, let alone a person in her 80s," adds Kumin.

He remembers taking her to dinner by the ocean so that Belova could watch the pelicans. "She said they looked like dancers, always flapping their feet. She was a very funny lady."

Nancy Wade McConnell also remembers her teacher's sense of humor and "incredible energy." A student of Belova's at Sullins College, McConnell has kept in touch with her for 25 years.

Though she calls Belova's style "old-school Russian ballet," she says her teacher wasn't disappointed when she joined a modern dance company. "She was supportive and open-minded. She'd always find something good to say. Sometimes she'd just say, `Very interesting,' and we'd all laugh," says McConnell.

Now a mother and teacher herself, McConnell echoes the sentiments of throngs of students who worked with Belova.

"She had a profound influence on my life. She cared about her students as whole people, not just dancers."

Belova is survived by her son, Peter Belenky. Donations can be made to Hospice Caring Project, 6851 Soquel Drive, Aptos, CA 95003, or Hagigah (a children's cultural arts program), c/o Maria Stolz, Temple Beth El, 3055 Porter Gulch Road, Aptos, CA 95003. A service is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 9 at Temple Beth El. For directions, call (408) 479-3444.