Patricia Schuster: The elegance and simplicity of dance

Few women in Ridgefield’s history have left as great a legacy as Patricia Schuster, ballet teacher extraordinaire. For almost 40 years, this extremely talented and dedicated performer/teacher left her imprint on the lives of more than 5,000 students and the community.

In December, with the opening of The Nutcracker at the Ridgefield Playhouse, students from the Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance performed on the Playhouse stage — the stage that Schuster (who died in 1999) helped to build by leaving her entire estate to the Ridgefield Playhouse and the Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance. Her lifetime dream was to have her students and those who followed to be able to perform the entire Nutcracker on a professional stage. Her dream has come true and brings joy to so many families.

Coming to Ridgefield in the early 1960s to teach dance at a private school that used to be in the Fox Hill area, Schuster went on to also establish the Patricia Schuster School of Dance. With the establishment of her school, which held classes at the Community Center and at Jesse Lee Church, Schuster brought the highest level of ballet training to the area. She wanted ballet students in Ridgefield to have the same level of training they would find in New York City, and she succeeded.

Schuster came to Ridgefield with an impressive background of training with the American Ballet Theater and with dancers from the Kirov Royal Ballet of Russia. She also danced professionally with the Brooklyn Opera Company and the Boris Goldovsky New England Opera Theater Company. What people remember her most for, however, is how she strived for excellence, sophistication and grace in all she did.

“Our performances were all based on a strong theme with challenging choreography. It was all about the quality of the dance movements and the proper interpretation of the role,” said Susan Consentino, a former student.

Schuster’s performances were not about how many dances every student could be in, numerous glitzy costumes and multitudes of photos. It was all about the beauty of the dance in its most elegant and simple form.

Since Schuster had no place to perform the full Nutcracker, her students took on smaller segments of the program and adapted them accordingly. There was also a special spring recital that showcased the best in classical ballet in the area. Her students had to be disciplined, focused, and willing to train for long hours to perfect their skills for these two performances. However, most of her students were more than willing to do this because of the leadership they were experiencing.

With the professional level of training provided by Patricia Schuster, many of her students went on to perform professionally and also to teach dance. The most famous of all of her pupils was James Fayette, who went on to be a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater and then became a choreographer. It was indeed unique at the time for a boy coming from a small town like Ridgefield to have developed such high levels of technique.

Diane Fitzgerald Bell, one of Schuster’s principal dancers in her early years, said, “Ms. Schuster not only inspired me to dance professionally but exposed me to some of the most outstanding teachers and performers in the field of classical ballet. She also helped us to get placements here and abroad and followed my work wherever I went.”

A parent, Nancy Pinkerton, said: “My daughter went on to win Junior Miss Connecticut with her Schuster ballet training. The poise and self-confidence gained from Ms. Schuster was immeasurable when it came to her later life.”

Schuster’s students, still after all these years, hold her in the highest regard. To them she was much more than a ballet teacher. She was an ageless icon who was never out of character and acted as a lifelong role model. Many remember her endless hours of teaching and resting for only short periods of time on her special little stool that she sat on so elegantly. Many aspired to be like Ms. Schuster in many aspects of her life.

In 1999, Susan Consentino, who had trained with her for more than 17 years said in Schuster’s obituary: “Miss Schuster never had any biological children of her own, but in reality, and far better, she actually had thousands of adoring children. She helped to shape and influence every one of us, and not just while we were her students. She gave each of us skills to carry with us in life that consciously or unconsciously are part of us to this day.”

The Nutcracker weekend at the Playhouse was a time to remember this great lady of the ballet who brought so much growth, joy and inspiration to the youth of the area.