Stephanie Selby, ballerina who inspired many, dies at 57

Stephanie Selby, who was the leading subject of “A Very Young Dancer,” a book that inspired a generation of budding ballerinas and future dance stars, but who abruptly abandoned the world of ballet and disappeared from view, died on February 3 in Cody, Wyo, she was 56 years old.

The cause was complications from an apparent attempt to end his life, said Howell Howard, a cousin.

At age 10, Ms. Selby was living the dream of many aspiring dancers, taking lessons at the School of American Ballet in Manhattan, the prestigious ballet academy founded by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein and the training ground of the New York City Ballet. by Balanchine.

In 1975, photographer Jill Krementz, renowned for her images of famous authors and for writing children’s books which she also photographed, visited the school. She felt she had walked into a Degas painting and immediately knew she wanted to create a book. She watched auditions, she said in an interview, and when Stephanie was cast as the lead role of Marie in George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’, Ms Krementz realized she had found her subject – and an enchanting subject.

She followed Stephanie for a year and produced a rare and detailed behind-the-scenes portrait of a young dancer’s life. It took decades before reality TV or Instagram demystified these private spaces.

Ms. Krementz captured Ms. Selby in routine maneuvers, like barre warm-ups, and dream-come-true moments, like dancing on stage at Lincoln Center as Marie.

“A Very Young Dancer” (1976) jumped onto the New York Times children’s bestseller list. Fan mail poured in. Ms Selby has appeared on the ‘Today’ program and an hour-long ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ Christmas special. And she fueled the imagination of other young dancers.

“I remember poring over every word and especially every photograph in the book,” recalls Dena Abergel, who read it when she was 7, via email. “I completely identified with Stephanie and hoped to one day live in her world of ballet.” She did, training at the School of American Ballet, becoming a dancer with the New York City Ballet and creating a number of roles there. She is now director of the company’s children’s repertoire.

But just when Ms Selby was giving hope to aspiring ballerinas that they too could reach the top, her own dancing career came to an abrupt end.

Despite the joy she found in dancing, she wasn’t always enamored with the dancing life. She found the training tedious. She often had headaches, she had excessive unexcused absences, and she made rude gestures towards teachers who she felt were pushing her too hard. Her star turn with the City Ballet on stage counted for nothing in the classroom. The summer before Stephanie was 13, the school asked her to withdraw. She was devastated.

To admit that she had been rejected would be humiliating. Stephanie wasn’t just another young woman who decided the demands of dancing like boot camp weren’t for her; she was the heroine of a beloved book that had lifted her to unimaginable heights.

She decided, with the support of her mother, that rather than reveal her rejection, she would tell people that she quit. She wanted to go to college, she said; dancing would only get in the way.

It’s the story she told for decades, until a Times reporter tracked her down in Wyoming in 2011 and wrote about her life. “Stephanie acknowledges that she may have had problems in life independent of her association with ballet and the book,” the article says, “but says her childhood experience undoubtedly contributed to her depression. later in life.”

Stephanie Mary Selby was born on October 14, 1965 in Manhattan. His father, Frederick, whose name was Fritz, was an investment banker and an adventurer. His mother, Linn (Howard) Selby, who had studied modern dance, carried on the family tradition of installing the annual Neapolitan nativity scene and Christmas tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Stephanie’s parents divorced when she and her older siblings, Andrea and Christopher, were very young. All four survive him.

The family lived on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and spent their summers on a family ranch in Cody, northwest Wyoming, where Stephanie rode horses and reveled in the outdoors.

In Manhattan, she fell in love with ballet at an early age and followed her sister to the School of American Ballet, successfully auditioning at age 8. With her long brown hair, Stephanie was intensely beautiful, Andrea Selby said in an interview, adding, “She radiated soul.

“A Very Young Dancer,” written by Ms. Krementz in Stephanie’s voice, provides a running commentary on what it feels like to be in Stephanie’s ballet slippers, accompanied by over 100 pages of black-and-white photographs. They include footage of her working with “MB,” as she and others in her circle called Balanchine, who taught her how to pass out on a bed without hurting herself.

“She got so famous so fast,” her sister said. “Every child had this book, and everywhere we went, every teacher we had at school, our friends’ parents, everyone thought she was going to be a prima ballerina when she grew up.”

Hardly anyone understood that inside, Mrs. Selby was struggling.

“When I wrote the book about Stephanie, there were thousands of 10-year-old girls who could only imagine a life like hers,” Ms Krementz said in an email. “They didn’t dream, and neither did I, that she was already battling demons that would haunt her for the rest of her life.”

When Ms Selby left ballet school, she reintegrated into her classes at Sacred Heart Convent for Girls before attending Wesleyan University. She graduated in 1989 with a major in religion.

As she tried to cope with her depression, she was prescribed various medications and sought help from a professional psychiatrist, but only for a time.

She has always loved animals, especially horses, and worked briefly as a horseback ranger in an urban park in New York City. Later, she lived occasionally in a monastery in Connecticut, where she milked cows, learned Latin, drove a tractor, prayed and meditated.

In the late 1990s she moved to Cambridge, Mass., where she worked with homeless people and people in crisis. “She had this burden that she was born with – depression,” her sister said. “She was struggling to live her life on the terms of life. But she has made it her mission to help others who have suffered.

She moved to Wyoming full-time in 2007 to oversee a house her mother was building. While in a Bible study group, she met John DePierro, whom she married. He worked as a cook, bricklayer, taxidermist and plumber, and she worked in a flower shop. They then divorced.

Living in Cody, she has worked as a cook, guide and wrangler with several pack travel outfitters. For a time, she worked in health care and the energy industry conglomerate Halliburton, near Powell, Wyo. And she volunteered at a Native American reservation near Cody, where she helped kids make crafts and led Bible school classes.

She was also an active member of Streams of Life, a small evangelical church in Cody. Pete, an Australian Shepherd dog who was her therapy buddy, was always nearby, waiting for her outside the church or sneaking up to check on her. Pete was ill and was recently shot, a traumatic loss for Ms Selby, church pastor Ron Kingston said in an interview.

Although she was away from Lincoln Center, she still enjoyed dancing, albeit in a less disciplined way than when she was a student. Occasionally, during church services, Pastor Kingston said, she would get up and move with the music in a freestyle.

“She was spontaneous,” he said. “She set her feelings in motion and she was free.”

If you are having suicidal thoughts, in the United States, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to for a list of additional resources. Go here for resources outside the United States.

Lucas E. Kelly