PALM-AIRE — Space, balance, movement and rhythm.
They have been always been part of the fabric of life for Helen Fleder, a George Balanchine-trained ballet dancer.
And though it’s been five decades since Fleder gave up ballet, the discipline and courage she learned from the art form continue to inspire her.
She has a favorite saying: “When a dancer’s body can no longer express the feelings of her soul, the hands of the sculptor can do it for her.”
Fleder, a founding member of the Art Association of Palm-Aire, now expresses her dancer’s graceful movements in her sculptures, carvings and paintings.
Her home includes several of her abstract dance sculptures, some caught in explosive flight, others resting in quiet repose.
She now imparts those elements of space, balance, movement and rhythm she learned as a dancer into her sculpture.
“It took many years before I found my style,” she said of the evolution of her work.
“The major thing is not to fear failing,” Fleder said. “If you can survive ballet training, you can survive almost anything.”
Born in Manhattan in 1924, she knew early on she wanted to study ballet and auditioned for Martha Graham when she was 11. Graham sent the young girl to study with Balanchine, an experience she describes as life-changing.
“Balanchine had a mind that was so very brilliant and everyone loved him. He always said dance is woman, woman is dance. He adored the thought of dancers dancing to his choreography,” Fleder said.
Eventually, however, injuries to her ankles forced her to leave ballet behind. She went on to open her own ballet school, taught ballroom dancing to cadets at the U.S. Military Academy, performed and choreographed for local theater and worked as a dance therapist for children and adults with disabilities.
On a triple date, she met Robert Fleder, who instantly decided, “I’m going to marry that girl one day.”
He went away to World War II as a B-29 pilot, where he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, and returned to marry Helen.
They have now been married 65 years and have three children and five grandchildren.
Robert Fleder, who retired as president of a New York textile firm, says the marriage has been great and that his wife is a study in “perpetual motion.”
Part of the reason she has been able to sustain so long and to maintain an appearance that belies her age is her dedication to physical fitness.
Fleder has written two books on the subject. The most recent is titled, “Good as Golden.”
“As a dancer, I was obsessed with maintaining good posture and body alignment and know it is the basic element in achieving flexibility and movement,” she said.
She also believes that having a positive attitude and a healthy lifestyle contribute to longevity.
She excelled at tennis and golf and was a dedicated walker.
Today she maintains her physical fitness primarily through swimming.
“My painful toes and ankles still remind me of how I abused them,” she says of her days as a dancer.
Marilyn Nordby, another member of the Art Association of Palm-Aire, says Fleder is “multidisciplinary and has accomplished so many things in her life. She has just never stopped being active.”
The Fleders had been spending a portion of their year in Florida for about a decade, when they moved here full-time in 1988.
But rather than a life of retirement, she has continued to work with her art, volunteer with students, and work on her books.
There is an element of the mentor, the motivational speaker in her.
“People have to wake up and see the beauty around them. To make the most out of your talent — your gift — is the epitome of life.
“None of us are perfect, but if you feel something inside, the major thing is not to fear failing. You just work hard, progress slowly, and eventually achieve your ambition.”
It’s a message that many of the younger members of the art association have taken to heart.
“She has been such an inspiration for us. Her involvement with the arts and the creation of art has never stopped,” Nordby said.
“A lot of the people involved in the association met her through the art show. All the people feel the same way I do. It’s an inspiration to us to keep working and creating new things.”
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee Editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.