Written in 2008, on behalf of her friend, renowned ballerina, and wellness advocate, Maïa Hellès. Maïa passed away in 2016, at the age of 99.
Mme. Hellès as we knew her was the girls’ dance movement/exercise teacher for about 15 years between 1960 until 1975. During my last years at the Lycée, she was my favorite adult. I have kept in touch with her over the years and recently, we have reconnected more intensely. The exercises she taught us stayed with me through the years and when I shared them with others, they would ask “where did you learn this?”
Maïa Hellès has been teaching the movement exercises she learned from her mother Fée Heller. Fée or Fea was born in Russia, but truly became well-known in Paris at her 33 Champs Elysées studio where she taught the wealthy, famous, and intellectual women of Europe for 50 years. Fee changed her name to Hellès to show her preference for Greek rather than German culture. In movement she was inspired by her friend Isadora Duncan and her observation of the movements of infants. Her goal was to free the body and that all movement should be gradual, physiologically correct, and aesthetically satisfying. Beauty is central to the experience.
Maïa took her mother’s name and has taught her mother’s method for over 70 years.
Name changing seems to be a family custom, because Maïa’s real name was Maïa Leah Abiléah. Her father was also born in Russia and his original name was Leo Nesviski. He changed his name to Ephraim Abiléah (father of Leah) the night Maïa Leah was born. His brothers took the name too. Google Abiléah and you will find them everywhere and doing interesting things. Leo/Ephraim was a wunderkind pianist and won prizes at various prestigious European conservatories. He was known as one of the founders of The Society for Jewish Folk Music in St Petersburg. He spent the last years of his life in Israel playing and teaching. The most well-known melody for the “Ma Nishtanah” song recited at the Passover Seder each year by the youngest child is his most remembered composition.
Fée Heller was his piano student and they fell in love. They traveled a great deal and had three daughters. One made her life in Israel, one in England and our Maïa came to America. She came to accompany the painter Bezalel Schatz. He was the son of Boris Schatz, the founder of the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem. Yes, our lovely, elegant Mme. Hellès speaks French, Russian, Hebrew and English.
She taught at the Lycée Français de New York for fifteen years from the mid-1950’s until 1970. Those exercises have stayed with me throughout the years and when I share them with others, they always ask “where did you learn this?”
This November, Maïa Hellès turned 91. She is elegant, graceful and a lovely teacher. I invite you to meet her and learn something quite wonderful—new and old.