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FRONTLINE: Profile 2


Tiny Dancer
Bala Cynwyd ballerina Molly Smolen shines in San Francisco.

So many little girls have sweet dreams of becoming a ballerina—dreams that usually end up being all sugar. Bala Cynwyd native Molly Smolen is an exception. She has followed her dreams all over the world, recently landing in California, where she is now a principal dancer for the San Francisco Ballet Company.

Smolen says she decided her destiny the minute she got her first pair of point shoes at age 10. “It was then that I knew I wanted to dance for the rest of my life,” she says.

Two years later, Smolen, now 28, began home schooling so she could spend more time dancing. “I was very focused,” she admits.

Focused enough not to worry about what she might be missing. “My mother danced with the New York City Ballet, and she really had the biggest influence on me during those years,” says Smolen. “She always told me exactly what I was doing wrong. It was helpful.”

Though Smolen’s mother, Ann, and her grandmother, Mae Goldstein, were both accomplished dancers, Molly’s talents truly stood out. At age 14, she won the bronze medal and the Nina Ricci Award for artistic excellence at the 15th International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria. And after honing her skills at the Pennsylvania Ballet Academy in Narberth, she went on to become a dancer in the corps of the American Ballet Theater in New York.

Smolen’s giant leap came at 19, when she moved to Eastern Europe to be a principal dancer in the National Ballet of Estonia. While there is no typical path for a dancer, many stay in the States and work their way up within a single company. “[The move to Estonia] threw me into the deep end, but it was the best way I saw to forward my dancing,” says Smolen. “I went from being in the background to being front-and-center all the time.”

Front-and-center and in control. “In Estonia, we could call the shots. We could pick our performances and when we wanted to have rehearsals.”

Love sprung when Smolen began dancing with Tiit Helimets, a native Estonian, whom she’s since married. The real-life romance no doubt added inspiration to their performances of Romeo and Juliet and Swan Lake at the time.

In 1999, the couple made a move to the Birmingham Royal Ballet in England, where Smolen’s fluid dancing style captured the artistic imagination of Lesley Fotherby, a local watercolorist. “When I first saw [her paintings of me],” Smolen says, “I was surprised.”

Three of Fotherby’s works were to be auctioned off by the BRB. Instead, her director sold two and gave the third to her as a gift. “It was titled Molly Smolen Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, which has actually become my signature pose over the years.”

In fact, Smolen’s most memorable performance was the Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan she danced in 2004 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Local publications touted her solo performance, with its maenad skipping and breasting-the-wind runs, as “mesmerizing and ecstatic.”

Smolen says her biggest challenge throughout her career has been overcoming her own flexibility and looseness. Although an audience may not think about it, appearing fluid on stage requires the utmost control over each muscle. Every performance, Smolen says, “a dancer must change the quality of their movement and keep to the character they’re portraying—and then keep that quality and character together in their mind and body.” Having joined the San Francisco Ballet Company over the summer (a year after her husband did), Smolen is looking forward to settling on the West Coast. She admits she feels more at home with an American company where, despite increased pressure, she is dancing in high-profile performances and everyone works extremely hard for what they have.

“Dancers could take it for granted [in Estonia] because after about six months, your contract was pretty much guaranteed,” she says. But in San Francisco, contracts are renewed every season—and that’s a big motivator for any dancer.

Smolen has a younger sister who recently took up competitive ballroom dancing as a student at Bryn Mawr College. When asked if she had a daughter whether she’d encourage her to dance, she says, “Encourage—no. But if it was something she needed to do, I would support her. It’s a really, really hard life.”

But it’s a hard life that rewards Smolen with “the sense of accomplishment when I improve and add layers of depth to my performance. And then, of course, with the actual performance, and being able to touch someone with what you produce.”

When asked if all the public attention she receives for her dancing is off-putting, Smolen acknowledges that while ballet is all-consuming, it’s the life she chose.

“It’s not what I do, it’s who I am,” she says. “I don’t find it off-putting at all.”