Editor's Note: In 2005, I remember meeting Marywilde Nelson in a funky dance studio called Belltown Ballet. Marywilde encouraged me to train at Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB). In all of my years of training, in studios: Boston, Denver, New York City and, of course, in Seattle, I have never met anyone who was so in love with the beauty, practice, and artistic expression of ballet. And this is the way I will always remember her. No matter what faith you are, or if you have any faith at all, say a prayer for her. If there is a heaven, and I don’t know for sure if there is, but of one thing I am certain: Marywilde Nelson is dancing forever.
After a long and valiant battle with cancer, Marywilde Nelson died on Friday afternoon, May 26 2017.
There are many subtle nuances to the dance world. One story rarely told is about the many dancers who have never become professional ballerinas, yet their love for ballet is nothing less than pure devotion. These dancers train in ballet every week, and in some instances every day, for the sheer love of it. Some of these dancers perform in semi-professional companies and others never perform at all. Here is a story about one woman’s courage and ambition to dance, no matter what obstacles stand in her way. Seattle dancer Marywilde Nelson has had a lifelong passion for ballet and literally lives to dance.
On any given day, you can find Marywilde Nelson standing at the barre at one of the open classes offered by Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB). These classes are open to anyone who can practice the demanding rigors of the discipline. Marywilde is tall, slender and has a creamy white complexion that has an almost translucent quality. She is a woman of a certain age or more accurately stated, Marywilde does not like telling her age because her mother raised her with the precept that ladies never reveal their age. Marywilde grew up in Kennewick, Washington. Her mother taught 5th grade in Pasco and her father was an entrepreneur who owned independent grocery stores. She cites her parents as among the greatest influencers in her life. “Mother was strict,” Marywilde said, and she remembers her father dearly for his “kindness and humility.”
As a child, she remembers going to a ballet class dressed in red tights. The class was sort of like charm school and taught manners instead of movement. She was mortified to be in the class, wearing red tights that had been unwittingly purchased by her mother who did not know pink ballet tights were de rigeur. She wanted to dance, but was told she would be too tall. Her parents didn’t see any value in ballet and guided her to learn how to play the piano, viola and violin. Despite the early kibosh on her desire to learn ballet, Marywilde shares idyllic memories of her childhood as if they were as fluid and as lilting as a classical waltz. Recalling her many Sunday afternoons spent at Volunteer Park in Walla Walla, Washington, she fed multitudes of ducks loads of Wonder Bread. Her summers on the Oregon coast hinted of the magic of the seals who swarmed in a public tank and waited for people to feed them bags of little fish. The seals would jump in the air and clap, the same way an audience clamors for more from its performers. She adored the Oregon coast, especially the sight and sounds of waves crashing on the beach and the fresh burst of wind and salty ocean air. Movement in nature, especially water and the majesty of mountains, has always captivated her, the same way ballet has beckoned her to reach for something higher in herself.
She moved to Bellingham and graduated from Western Washington University with a BA in education. Later she obtained a Master’s degree in Library Science at the University of Washington. Her career has been an eclectic blend of teaching in school and working for attorneys and bankers. She worked for the President of a Bank and also the Head of the Trust department in Banking. At one point, she worked as the Director for the School at Calvary Temple in Seattle. Marywilde said she hopped around in work until she got into ballet. “All I ever wanted to do was dance,” she said.
The opportunity to dance did not come until later, when she was in her forties. She happened to be at a women’s prayer meeting and was asked what she had wanted to be when she was growing up. All she ever wanted to be was a ballet dancer, she told the group. Coincidentally, within a week she spotted a woman who was dressed in ballet garb who told her she had just come from ballet class. Until then Marywilde had no idea that there were ballet classes for adults. She immediately found the class and enrolled. It was so hard that she could hardly do anything. She had no athletic background or natural coordination. Week after week, she forced herself to go back and train. Even though she was in a beginning class, she felt herself unable to do even the simplest pas de bourree.
Her love for movement was so profound that despite the difficulty she initially encountered, she was not discouraged and did not stop training. Soon she found out Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) had an open program. Her first teachers, Terry Sparks and Vivian Little, were her instructors. Marywilde mentions Vivian Little’s extraordinary eye for placement and how she gave every student generous attention and thoughtful corrections.
Through the years, Marywilde stuck with ballet and began to thrive. She fell in love with the challenge and continual quest of striving to perfect technique. The process of ballet dancing completely meshes with who she is as a person, self-described as persevering, principled and utterly faithful. She loves the look and feel of ballet, the way the technique shapes the body. She also loves moving to classical music and sees how her early training in music enriches the way she has been able to dance. “Ballet inspires me to listen deeply to music, connect with it and to move to the music to the best of my ability,” she said.
Ballet took her to a higher place in herself and to a world where she was creating beauty. Eventually, the ballet training led to another career as a Pilates instructor. Marywilde trained in Pilates with the highly regarded Romana Kryzanowska, who had been a Balanchine dancer, and later became a muse to Joseph Pilates, the original creator of this method. Romana Kryzanowska was chosen to by Joseph Pilates to carry on his work. Soon Marywilde had a full-time career teaching Pilates at the Washington Athletic Club (WAC). Her career in Pilates, combined with so many years of being a familiar face in the closely knit dance community, has led to many friendships. “This is my tribe,” she said.
Marywilde dances because she literally has to dance. “Even as a recreational dancer this is who I am. I cannot imagine my life without ballet classes and I don’t think I could live unless I had ballet classes as dramatic as that sounds.”
It’s not too dramatic for her to proclaim her deep, abiding love for ballet as a way to inspire her to thrive and to live. She is now facing one of the greatest challenges of her life. She is living with Stage IV metastatic mucousal melanoma. Despite the demands of the medical treatment, she has been instructed to exercise and because of all of her years of extensive training, ballet is the one thing she can do. When her strength wanes, she can sit down or leave the class to take a break. What keeps her going? In ballet class, she is surrounded with beautiful music, and the stimulation of artistic combinations given by positive and skilled teachers who encourage her to keep moving. “If I get to the point where cannot dance, I will still come to class and sit and observe.” The art lifts her up and transports her to a higher, more peaceful place, where there is everlasting beauty, infinite tenderness and a sense of wonder. “This is my place to be,” she said softly, “and I will always cherish it.”
As a professional writer, Patricia Vaccarino has written award-winning film scripts, press materials, essays, articles, speeches, web content, marketing collateral, and seven books. Please see her press kit.