Anyone who’s ever met 80-year-old dance instructor, Halcyone Ewalt Perlman, will readily agree that she’s a lady, and a lovely one at that. She’s an artist with a penchant for beauty and her south-side Columbia home is evidence of that. There are fresh flower bouquets sprinkled throughout the room along with quite a few of the treasures she’s collected during her many trips abroad: little porcelain boxes from Europe and Asia, paintings and sculptures. She loves opera, film, great books, animals and nature, but most of all, she loves beautiful dance.
At barely five feet tall, “Miss Perlman,” as her devoted students affectionately call her, readily admits to being a little old fashioned. She doesn’t have a personal Facebook page and only communicates by hand-written letters. “My friends love getting my letters,” she explains. “Those are the people I like to give my news to,” she explains. Not the whole world-wide-web. You will find a Perlman-Stoy Ballet School Facebook page, but someone else is writing those daily posts, not Halcyone Ewalt Perlman. She does, however, admit to having used her mother’s antique Smith Corona typewriter until she could no longer find ribbons for it. She owns a cell phone, “but right now, I cannot find it,” she confesses. “I use it mostly for emergencies and to make calls while traveling.”
Once when preparing her teen ballet students to perform at an outdoor festival in downtown Columbia, she sent home notes admonishing parents to make sure their girls covered up before and after the performance because it simply was not “appropriate” for young ladies to be seen out in public wearing dance wear.
Yes, Halcyone Ewalt Perlman, founder and co-director of the Perlman-Stoy Dance Studio, bears all the traits of someone who’s attended one of those fine, East Coast finishing schools. In reality, though, she grew up in downtown Columbia on the southwest corner of Ninth and Locust Streets upstairs over the, now defunct, White Eagle Dairy. “We had the second floor of the building – it was part house and part dance studio,” she recalls. She’s never forgotten the steep stairway that led up to their second floor home and dance studio because Santa once littered those stairs with a trail of books for her. Her parents, Marietta Ewalt and Sam Perlman, began teaching ballet, tap and ballroom dancing from their second floor studio in 1933.
To date, Perlman has taught thousands of dance students how to plié, pirouette, stand on pointe, and how to behave like a professional onstage, but growing up an only child, she initially had little interest in following in her parents’ dance footsteps. “I wanted to be an entomologist because I had a friend who was a bug specialist and I remember him giving me a snake which I kept until it escaped,” she explains. “I loved all animals and considered being a veterinarian.”
Not a dancer. She loved music and played piano and cello for a while. To Perlman, her parents’ passion for dance was “simply their work” and she took it for granted. It wasn’t until around the age of 14 that she fell in love with dance. When she tries to describe her transition to dance-lover, she says, “It swept over me” and that’s when she began taking dance lessons from her parents. She was so enthralled with dance that she left high school at 16 and headed to Dallas, Texas, to study with famed Russian ballerina, Alexandra Danilova. “And my mother was all for it,” she says with a little twinkle in her eyes.
In her late teens, accompanied by her grandmother, she went to New York to study with another famous Russian, dancer-choreographer Igor Schwezoff. While there, she also took classes at the American School of Ballet. Although some people complained about the anonymity of life in the big city, not Perlman. “I loved it,” she readily admits.
Perlman’s risky decision to pursue dance in lieu of finishing high school obviously paid off. She eventually returned to Columbia and took over leadership of her parents’ dance school. Today, the Perlman-Stoy School of Ballet and its performance wing, the Mid-Missouri Dance Theatre, stand toe-to-toe with the best dance schools in the world. Former Bolshoi ballerina, Nina Loory, met Perlman shortly after Loory moved to Columbia from Russia in 1997. Loory danced with the world-famous Russian ballet for 20 years and, after retiring from the stage, became their repertoire chief. Because she spent decades in the world of classical ballet, both on stage and behind the scenes, Loory knows excellence when she sees it!
“I think Columbia people have to appreciate the fact that Halcyone created this school and maintains it at such a high professional level,” Loory says. “Halcyone’s school is in a small university town – not like big schools on the east or west coast…She’s an ideal teacher who absorbs the best of each of her teachers.”
Shortly after Loory moved to Columbia, she asked Halcyone’s permission to attend her classes and was a regular there for the 12 years she lived in Columbia. “She choreographs things her students can do but always pushes them to the next step, and she always picks the best classical music. She never goes cheap,” insists Loory, who now lives in New York and is the artistic director of the International Ballet Prize, Benois de la Danse, an Academy Awards-like ceremony for the international dance community that takes place annually on the stage of the Bolshoi.
“Miss Perlman” also has shaped Nancy Stoy’s dance career. When, then-13-year-old Stoy moved to Columbia, she came with an impressive resume with years of good ballet training and was impressed with Perlman’s dance pedigree. “When my parents were looking for a ballet studio, they immediately recognized the quality of Halcyone’s studio,” Stoy says. She had studied with luminaries who had so much influence in the ballet world.” By the age of 16, Stoy was taking up to six classes a day. “She really is a first-class teacher. She’s artistic and elegant,” Stoy says.
Stoy’s relationship with Perlman, however, goes way beyond dance training. “I get very emotional when I talk about her. She’s been my mentor, good friend and colleague,” Stoy muses. “I mean, when you grow up with somebody for over 50 years, that’s a good long friendship.”
According to Stoy, Perlman’s artistry and choreography highlight her students’ strengths without drawing attention to their weak areas. “She shows the most beautiful parts of their potential. It’s all art above tricks – quality not quantity,” Stoy continues. “She wants her students to finish each turn beautifully. She’d say ‘Give me two or three good turns and finish on the money!’” If a student happens to stumble or fall during one of their annual spring dance concerts at the Rhynsburger Theater, they’re trained to get up and continue dancing like a true professional. Even her youngest pre-ballet and elementary dance students exhibit uncharacteristic poise, grace and professionalism onstage.
While Stoy was still in high school, Perlman asked her to consider teaching alongside her. “I remember being thrilled to my toes and so honored when she asked me to consider teaching in her studio,” Stoy says. She tucked Perlman’s offer away and continued dancing with her until she headed off to college. She subsequently studied, performed and taught dance in Canada, New York and London, and even at Stephen’s College but always dreamed of returning to Perlman’s studio to teach alongside her mentor and friend. Stoy became the school’s co-director five years ago.
Fifty-six-year-old Susan Fields, a retired Montessori teacher, began studying with Perlman at the age of six and to this day, continues to attend adult classes at the Perlman-Stoy School of Ballet. During Fields’ teen years, Perlman was not only her ballet instructor, she was counselor and mentor as well.
“She saved my life more than once because I grew up in the 80s – a time full of drugs, alcohol and disco. It was a time of great social experimenting and if I had not had the ballet studio, I might not be alive today, because, as a teen, I was a risk taker. She exposed me to something that no one else could have,” Fields explains. She is convinced that the studio changed her life and made her a different person.
It was Fields who spent years writing the nomination for Perlman’s 2016 Missouri Council of Arts Award. Last month, Perlman received the award from Missouri’s First Lady Georganne Nixon at the Capitol Rotunda in Jefferson City surrounded by friends and colleagues who traveled from far and wide to celebrate with her. Perlman’s name is now listed among the Missouri Arts Council’s long list of “Arts Heroes.”
When asked, “Where do you study?” Perlman’s students perk up and proudly say, “I study with Halcyone Perlman,” not unlike someone who would say, “I study with the New York Ballet” or “I study with the Bolshoi,” because Halcyone Ewalt Perlman has helped keep excellent classical ballet alive in Columbia for five decades. Her ballet school now occupies an upstairs suite at the Village of Cherry Hill and is still producing first-rate dancers. Perhaps her long-running success can be attributed to the fact that she’s still the same creative and classy gentlewoman that her colleagues and loyal students have always loved and respected. According to Stoy, “She’s so generous and gracious – no rivalry – because that’s not what a gentle woman would do.”