In 1954, Madeline Ligenza was an excited, yet frightened eight-year-old, dressed as a Toy Soldier and readying to lead a squad of Toy Soldiers before thousands of onlookers at the New York City Center.
Ligenza was dancing her first professional role in The Nutcracker, choreographed by George Balanchine.
Now, more than 50 years later, Ligenza choreographs and teaches ballet in Carbon County.
"To dance is to live," she explained. "Dance is my life. You have no aches or pains or thoughts when you are dancing. I can go to a studio with a major headache or a pain in my neck and in 10 minutes, I don't even know I have a headache or a pain."
Dancing is Ligenza's formula for good health. That's how she got into dancing.
"I was a peanut, very little," she said of her stature as an eight-year-old child. At the public school she attended across the street from where she lived in Manhattan, her classes were held on the third floor.
"I had pains in my legs from climbing the stairs," she said. "My mother took me to a doctor and he suggested some sort of discipline or sport. Somehow ballet got to be chosen."
"I loved it. It was like they put me in a fish tank and I knew how to swim right from the beginning."
Madeline's mother took her to George Chaffee's studio on 57th Street in New York City. "That first day, I was very scared. I was excited."
"It was a huge room with a wooden floor and a baby grand piano," she said. "I wonder how did they get it up there. It was a winding staircase up three flights."
"I took ballet for a while and I remember going back to the doctor's office," she continued. "I was a quiet child, which I am not now. I was really fearful he would tell me that I had to stop dancing. It was the first time I ever spoke up for myself and I fearfully asked did I have to stop dancing because I didn't have the pains in my legs anymore?"
The doctor told her she could continue dancing, and she hasn't stopped.
At the age of 13, she was accepted to the School of American Ballet. One day, she saw a flurry of students gathered around a bulletin board.
"Auditions being held for the Nutcracker," Ligenza said. "I thought, I could do that."
This was the second season that George Balanchine was presenting The Nutcracker.
"Before that I hadn't heard of The Nutcracker," she said. "It was just an opportunity to dance."
Balanchine personally taught the dances. In her first season, he cast Ligenza as the leader of the Toy Soldiers.
"I got every one to come out of the box on time, and I prayed every time the music started because I had no idea if I was right or wrong," she recalled.
She danced for three productions during her first three years of high school, completing nearly 150 performances. In her subsequent seasons, she was promoted to the role of a Candy Cane.
She remembers Balanchine as a suave man of medium height with a Russian accent.
"He was very gentle and patient," she said.
She remembers The Nutcracker meant everything in her life.
"I get a hole in my stomach when I hear the music, even today," she said. "I respond with tears. I remember all the good times except the one time when I was so engrossed."
"He (Balanchine) would allow us to go back stage a little earlier, so we could watch the premier dancers," Ligenza said. "I was so mesmerized watching Maria Tallchief and Andrea Glovsky do the pas de deux that I forgot to go on."
"Afterwards I was asked, 'who was the missing Candy Cane?'" she remembers. "I raised my hand and they were very gentle with me. It only happened once!"
After The Nutcracker, and an unsuccessful audition for West Side Story, Ligenza finished school and began working. She never gave up on her dancing – continuing with classes up to six times each week, and adding jazz and ballroom to her repertoire.
"I wanted to keep my dancing up, so I started a little hobby, the Nesquehoning School of Classical Ballet in 1963." Ligenza said, concerning her return to Carbon County. "It ran for 29 years.
"It was a labor if love," she said. "It didn't make much money, if I made any. I was always in the red. Lessons were $1."
Ligenza, who teaches at two Carbon County dance studios, has been involved with the Schuylkill County Ballet, and has played the Mother in their production of The Nutcracker. She has choreographed productions at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, Panther Valley High School, Marian High School, Mauch Chunk Museum Fall Ball, dinner theaters and murder mysteries.