Save me a dance

07 April 2009 | By Lorelei Vashti

When Zelda Fitzgerald started ballet lessons she was 27 years old and determined to become a professional dancer. As the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, she had lived in The Great Gatsby author’s shadow for almost a decade. Dancing, for her, was not just a hobby – it was the only way she could have a life of her own.

Zelda’s dream was to dance in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Her teacher was Madame Lubov Egorova, who trained dancers for the company. Zelda took classes every morning and afternoon, practising for almost eight hours a day. It was an obsession bordering on mania.

She wrote short stories to pay for her classes, because, as she said, “I wanted my dancing to belong to me.” Scott denigrated her ballet obsession, saying that she was too old to become a première danseuse. But he also feared that her writing had started to encroach on his territory. It was a jealousy that would haunt their marriage for years to come.

Egorova was impressed by Zelda’s ability. She said that although Zelda started too late to equal stars such as Nemtchinova, she could still dance important roles with great success. On her recommendation, Zelda was asked to join an Italian dance company. But despite the prospect of a monthly salary, Zelda turned the offer down, apparently afraid of the very independence she had so long sought.

Diaghilev died in 1929, and her dreams of working with the Ballets Russes ended. With her fragile mental condition worsening, Scott entered her into a clinic. She gave up ballet forever.

Zelda wrote her only published novel in hospital in 1932. Save Me the Waltz was a thinly disguised autobiography of her marriage to Scott. He was irate, insisting that she had read the early pages of his novel, Tender Is the Night, and used material in her book that rightfully belonged to him.

It sold poorly, and Zelda, who three years earlier had worked so hard to pay $300 a month for ballet classes with Egorova, earned just $120.73 from the sales of her book. She died in 1948, when the mental institution she lived in burned to the ground.

In Save Me the Waltz Zelda’s alter ego explains her passion and need for dance: “Reaching her goal, she would drive the devils that had driven her … in proving herself, she would achieve … peace.”