Monday night ballet class is known as Ladies’ class, an oblique reference to the fact that few of us who appear on this weekday are des poulets de printemps. Some of us are former students returned, some are entirely new to the discipline, but most of us are here for the creampuff treatment. Unlike Thursday class, where Madame puts one through one’s gasping paces, the 7pm Monday class is designed to accommodate the experienced, the beginner, and the in-betweener. We perform about a half hour of barre exercise, followed by what Madame generously refers to as dancing. There is usually much chattering as we catch up with each other’s news. On most Mondays, there are one or two of her seasoned en pointe ballerinas to lead the way when we have derailed ourselves with our inattention. We watch their young, elegant backs as they jeté and piqué across the diagonal of the studio floor, and we mimic their steps as best we can. I am a latecomer to ballet, slowly corralled into the fold in my late 30s by the ridiculously charming Madame Solange Binda Maclean, who was teaching my young daughter at the time. Nearly 20 years later, I am slowing down a bit, but I come to class to stretch and condition, and to visit with Madame, whom I love. Madame would likely forgive me for saying that she is slowing down too, but she is not slowing down by much. She is 94 and sports a pair of bright aqua eyes, which are topped by a chic coiffure of soft silver-white waves. She is usually dressed in a flowing black tunic and trousers, unfailingly elegant and sharp. She calls out instruction like a crystal flute, except when she issues commands. In individual correction she maintains her ladylike lilt, but when harnessing a dozen pairs of feet, few of which remain in perfect turnout (particularly on Monday nights), she injects surprising power into that delicate soprano. All heads snap to when that happens. She is a supreme teacher whose career and life constitute a tale.
Madame was born to Belgian parents on February 1, 1922 in the city of Chengchow (Zhengzhou), in the Hunan province of China, close to Peking, as she still refers to Beijing. Chengchow encompassed one of the colonial stations made possible by the treaties established after the Opium Wars, and the family lived in the Russian concession, the “prettiest one,” according to Madame. Chengchow was a small town at best, with few modern amenities, and the first child of the de St. Huberts was delivered into the world by a Japanese veterinarian. Her name at birth was Solange Jacqueline Elizabeth Constance de St. Hubert. Be sure you do not omit the de, the remnant of aristocracy that is evident in her features and manner, brought to her through her father, Georges de St. Hubert. Solange’s mother, Simone, a Red Cross nurse, married Georges in 1919. They met when in the French Riviera at St. Tropez, where M. de St. Hubert, an officer with the Belgian Cavalry, was recovering from mustard gas injuries acquired during WWI.
Before the second World War, Georges worked for a Belgian railway concern in China, and gradually rose through the ranks. In 1925 he began work with the Crédit Foncier d’Extrême Orient, a large credit union and mortgage banking institution, becoming a sous directeur (deputy director), and finally director in 1928. Solange’s brother, Christian, was born in 1927 in Tientsin (Tianjian). By 1928, the family had settled in Peking.
In the early 20th century, while China accommodated European trade within its borders, it was also fighting off regular incursions by the Japanese. For most of Solange’s early life, however, her existence was untouched by these perturbations. She lived opulently in what she describes as “fantastic” homes, complete with servants and a busy social calendar. Her family took the long journey back to Belgium every 3 years and spent 6-7 months on the home front, where Solange would attend Belgian school. Summers were often spent at beach houses. In China, she attended a German school, accounting for yet another of her several languages, and she grew up among the children of other European tradespeople and the diplomatic corps. Her family often hosted Belgian missionaries for weeks at a time, before they trekked into Mongolia.
Today she switches easily between her native Belgian French and adopted English like a lively painted songbird, but she also conducts complete conversations in Mandarin, which she spoke almost exclusively in her toddler days. Add to that farrago a spice of Italian. When she is searching for words in her voluminous vocabulary, she flutters her fingers and reaches for them in the air, and sometimes resorts to quixotic imitations of bubbling cheese or whatever phenomenon she is trying to describe. Most of the time, however, I believe she is thinking in the language of music.
Solange began ballet instruction at the age of 5, studying under an expatriate ballerina, Mme. Agrippina Voitenko, a White Russian who had fled from the Reds in St. Petersburg and had settled in Peking. Madame continues to employ a modified “Russian method” as a didactic technique for her own pupils. The method loosely translates to “throw ‘em in the deep end, where they will learn to swim.” More precisely, she places adult newbies in moderately advanced classes, where they learn by doing, and she steers the shaky aspirants through the waters with corrective pointers that become more exacting as each student learns and improves. She can observe an entire class undulating and jumping through a dance routine and instantly pick out a failure to point toes or to properly extend an arm. (Note to students: Don’t hide in the back. This does not work. Don’t ask me how I know this.)
In 1937, Japan took Shanghai over the course of a three-month battle. Nanking followed, and a swath of cities afterward. As the armies advanced further, Europeans in the various concessions were issued armbands to indicate their nationalities. In 1941, shortly after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, China sided with the Allies, and the occupying Japanese promptly rounded up any Allied foreigners into prison camps.
“They came from the North,” said Solange, when I asked her how the Japanese announced themselves. She still remembers the dread she felt when she saw the concession flag being taken down and the Japanese flag put in its place. She and her family were taken to the Weihsien internment camp, an old Presbyterian mission in Shandong province whose dormitories and hospital wing had been gutted, surrounded with electrified barbed wire, and thus repurposed. Weihsien translates to “Court of the Happy Way.” Unhappily, there were no cots, chairs, or tables, nor was there running water available in the assigned rooms. Water had to be carried from a communal kitchen. Showers were taken in a common area and were greatly restricted. There was no kindling wood; internees carried small quantities of coal from a slag heap located a fair distance from the living quarters. Large dormitory-style rooms had one small coal stove, while smaller rooms rarely had one. There was a plentiful supply of near-starvation, sticky heat, summer monsoon rains that flooded the compound, bitter cold in winter, enforced squalor, and constant fear.
Resilient people survive by orienting their minds to something other than their present circumstance. Solange summoned her considerable energy and directed her artist’s eye to the task at hand, which was to improve her surroundings. She was in good company, despite conditions. The prisoners, in the main intelligent, educated, resourceful, and altruistic, gathered themselves and their limited supplies and made the most of their situation. Among them was Eric Liddell, the British Olympic runner, who died just months before the camp was liberated. Arthur W. Hummel, Jr., American Ambassador to China in the early 80s, and Alice F. Moore, principal of the Peking American School, were there as well. Solange’s brother, Christian de St. Hubert, later served as Belgian ambassador to a plethora of countries, including Costa Rica, Kenya, Uganda, and Panama.
The denizens of Weihsien formed a council, organized a school, assigned janitorial duties, and made do with what few facilities were available. They kept their culture alive with home-grown plays, musical recitals, and ballets. When the Japanese forbade musical practice, the musicians would continue their études by playing with silent gestures on their instruments. In what Solange and others termed the “black market,” Chinese neighbors smuggled in food and supplies, despite the risk of torture and death, both of which befell more than one sympathizer. Coal was scarce. Numerous survivors recall that one of the duties of the children was to collect precious coal dust and roll it into marble-sized balls for combustion.
Solange, and everyone who survived and wrote about Weihsien, would remember the overwhelming sensation of hunger. Parents crushed eggshells and fed the powder to their children to stave off rickets. Meat, often equine in origin, was rare, and most often rotten. Milk was sour. Solange did not experience permanent ill effects, but Christian suffered from spinal problems throughout his lifetime, which were likely acquired through malnutrition.
Solange’s girlhood friend, Jolanda (YoYo), was brought to the camp in 1943, two years after the arrival of the de St. Huberts. Married at 15 to an Italian officer, she had her small son with her. In a brief memoir, she writes of the icy cold day of her arrival, and of her intense fright and confusion. Her anxiety was instantly soothed as she registered with great surprise the sound of Solange’s tinkling, melodious call from far across the camp. She could scarcely believe her good fortune. Late in the evening of YoYo’s arrival, the incoming prisoners were secretively instructed to come to the boundary wall, where in the darkness they were handed bundles of supplies, liberal outpourings of whatever anyone could spare—pots and pans, blankets, a soup plate. Solange had even included for YoYo a rag puppet, for the little boy, Valerio.
While the Allied prisoners were kept separately from the Axis prisoners, the two factions found ways to meet. YoYo and Solange often crossed the brick wall separating the camp sections. On one occasion, after delivering some promised vegetable seeds to YoYo, Solange became trapped in YoYo’s room when the guards sprang a surprise inspection. Big Head, a guard so named in reference to his fat cranium stuffed into a small green cap, muscled his way into the room just seconds after Solange had slipped under YoYo’s bed. Petrified, YoYo picked up Valerio and sang him a lullaby as Big Head ordered one of his men to search the room, pointing his flashlight behind curtains, beneath sheets, and under the bed where Solange was hidden behind bricks and balls of coal. All the while, YoYo repeatedly sang her lullaby tune, but her Italian words were: Don’t you worry, my dear friend, all of this will very soon end, please don’t move my dear friend, they will leave and all will end. By sheer luck, Solange was not discovered, and hid until darkness fell and the guards disappeared into their huts.
On August 17, 1945, an American B-2 bomber buzzed low over the camp, and from its rear doors it disgorged seven parachutes: six paratroopers and one translator. These were members of the OSS dispatched from Chungking (Chongqing). Upon reaching the ground, they accosted the camp commander and relieved him of his duty without resistance. The rising sun flag was lowered and an American flag was raised in its place. In a matter of months, the camp was evacuated and many prisoners were repatriated to their respective countries. Given the turmoil that persisted in Europe, however, the de St. Hubert family remained in China for some long months as they rebuilt their lives.
Prior to entering Weihsien, the family had given many of their household goods to some Russian friends, who had held them in safekeeping. They returned to their home and resumed a somewhat normal life. Beautiful Solange did not lack for suitors, and at the well-chaperoned social events, she encountered many American Marine officers who wished to dance with her. She struck up a close friendship with one of them, William Maclean, Jr. He eventually asked her to marry him, but she declined. Instead, she married another handsome Marine, Jeffrey Binda, and soon found herself following her husband to points around the world: Boston, where Binda’s family lived, New York City, Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Wiesbaden, the Hague. Son Mark was born in 1950, and daughter Carinne in 1954. Mr. Binda, however, was not the person he had seemed to be in China, and Solange struggled with the knowledge. Her Catholic family frowned on divorce, and she tried very hard to make things work. In 1955, however, she took the leap and divorced, an unusually courageous decision at the time, particularly as she had two young children.
Solange had not attended university, but she was surpassingly well educated, multilingual, and a complete ballerina. It was not long before she established herself as a teacher through sheer willpower. Before founding her ballet academy, she taught French at the Kilmer School in Arlington, as well as at her home, and was soon adding ballet to the curriculum for her language students. She established the Ballet Academy of Northern Virginia in 1951, in the city of Falls Church. Over the decades, which are well represented in the photos that line her studio, she has sent many pupils on to successful careers in dance. Her own daughter, Carinne Binda, enjoyed a long career as a soloist with the Boston Ballet. Carinne’s daughter, Alexandra Cunningham, now dances for the Sacramento Ballet, which is incidentally directed by Carinne and her husband Ron Cunningham. Carinne’s son, Christopher, did not heed the call to dance, but his tall good looks would have lent themselves well to the stage.
Solange’s dynastic talent, perhaps absorbed in her native China, found rich rooting in America. She singlehandedly supported her young family, and even took in her elderly Tante Suzanne, whom many Monday “ladies” remember sitting by the piano in the basement studio, where they took instruction as children. Tante Suzanne figures into an iconic family story.
In 1964, the handsome Marine colonel, Bill Maclean, who had once danced with Solange in China, was living in Arlington, Virginia. One evening he found himself dancing with a Belgian lady. Bill remarked on her accent, as it was hauntingly familiar to him, and he described to her his experiences of 20 years before. The lady, by amazing coincidence, happened to be acquainted with Solange. Upon discovering this, Bill asked the lady for Solange’s address. The lady took pains to caution him, for no reason I can fathom: she warned him that Solange was greatly “changed” due to her “hard life.” This statement proved to be of little deterrence to Bill. With what I imagine to be a high degree of dispatch, Bill set about planning to ring her doorbell in Falls Church as soon as he dared. Now, it must be noted that Solange and Tante Suzanne had a strong family resemblance, particularly in the bright aqua eye department. As Bill stood patiently on the doorstep, waiting for the door to open and possibly speculating on just how hard Solange’s life had actually been, Tante Suzanne answered the doorbell and trained her ancient blue peepers on a perhaps ambivalent man. I further imagine Bill’s immense relief minutes later, when Solange appeared behind her. So greatly relieved he was, that in 1966, he married her.
Countless students have passed through the academy’s doors, many of them having gone on to careers in dance. Today Solange flies across the continent regularly to watch her granddaughter spin away on the boards in Sacramento. She can easily watch 4 or 5 performances of the same ballet over a few days’ time, and return to the East Coast with minimal jet lag. In her basement in Falls Church, there are hundreds of ballet costumes in a variety of sizes and colors, most of which she has designed and sewn herself. While she has finally retired from staging full-scale recitals, she does plan mini-recitals for the little ones, and most of her “ladies” have assisted her once or twice in the grand enterprise of extracting, and then re-inserting, the tutus and headdresses and streamers and vests, from and into their labeled boxes. On the walls in her second home in Aldie, VA hang some of her accomplished watercolors, and upstairs, her sewing machine sits in a large room lined with fabrics. Having evolved from her costume-sewing habit, she has repurposed yards of fabric into scarves for her students, and I have several in my closet, some fringed with beading, others shot theatrically with gold thread. There have been many babies over the years, and to greet each one Solange has created innumerable, sumptuous, ribbon-bedecked bassinets. She still makes tender Belgian crepes that are beyond description. Each evening after class, there are two spoiled poodles to let into the yard. There is still that handsome Marine colonel to kiss goodnight.
When my husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2009, I managed to attend class most Mondays, as we endeavored to maintain a routine as much as possible throughout his palliative treatment. I could feel Madame’s eyes on me as I went through my steps, and as 10 pounds rapidly slipped off my frame. She immediately stepped up her crepe regimen, frequently sending me home with a baking dish or two, in addition to her healthful potages made with all manner of green leafy things. When Chris died in late 2011, however, I withdrew into myself, completely exhausted by grief and the arduous months of caregiving. Undaunted, Madame had me to Thanksgiving dinner three weeks after Chris’s death. She threw me a birthday party 9 months after that. She called me from time to time, and sent me warm and inviting notes in her exquisite loopy cursive writing. I would promise to come back to ballet, soon, soon, soon. While I had resumed working, walking 6-7 miles every day, and biking many miles in the temperate months, for the longest time, on most evenings I was too spent to attend a one-hour class. Nearly three years elapsed before I quietly returned to her Falls Church academy, stepping over bags and books and the detritus of young ballerinas who were finishing up the 6:00 class. As I changed my clothes in the anteroom, I heard Madame’s voice in the studio, calling out steps. I could scarcely believe my good fortune.