When you live to be 100, there’s usually no simple way to tell the story of your life. Stories are woven together over the years to produce a century of lore. For Hortensia Fonseca, who celebrated her 100th birthday on January 14 of this year, the story of her life is told both by what she’s accomplished and by those whose lives she’s impacted. And as the founder of the Maryland Youth Ballet and an influential force in ballet education, the fascinating details that fill her biography are in no short supply.
Collecting tidbits from both Tensia and those who know her well, here is a story I can weave: Hortensia Fonseca was born in Costa Rica in 1922 and knew by the age of 8 that she wanted to be a ballet dancer. She also, at some point, acquired an accounting degree from a university in Costa Rica. She then came to New York City in her 20s, where she worked as a milliner sewing feathers and baubles onto hats that cost up to $600. She auditioned for a prominent ballet company in the city but had married and moved to Maryland by the time she got the call offering her a contract. She was pregnant with her first son, Julio, so she turned down the offer and decided to teach. She taught out of her basement until she founded the Maryland Youth Ballet at its first location, in Bethesda, in 1971.
Since then, Tensia has taught classical ballet to hundreds and hundreds of students, some of whom went on to be successful, prolific dancers: Susan Jaffe and Julie Kent of American Ballet Theatre; Elisa Clark, dancer with Alvin Ailey and Mark Morris; Daniel Applebaum of New York City Ballet; and Lillian DiPiazza, who currently dances with the Paris Opéra Ballet, are just a few among those who span the generations of Tensia’s influence. Other Maryland Youth Ballet students of Tensia’s have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, Fulbright Fellows, Ivy League graduates and business owners. When I asked Tensia what she might attribute her success to as a dance teacher, she said luck, honesty, trust and love.
Mrs. Fonseca, as I still call her, was my ballet teacher growing up, and when I FaceTimed with her the other day, she told me that she loves me and misses me. But I’m not the only special one. She loves and remembers (sometimes with a little help these days) each and every one of her students. “I was born loving people,” she told me. Even when Mrs. Fonseca poked and prodded your feet and arms to form the correct position, she loved you. Even when she yelled corrections during a rehearsal for one of her many original ballets, she loved you. And you could feel it. “She was ballet. She was passionate and awe-inspiring, but at the same time you could always tell how much she loved ballet and dancers and children and people,” Julie Kent told me. She made the Maryland Youth Ballet a place to love and a place to fall in love with ballet.
As Tensia hired teachers over the years, including Michelle Lees, Rhodie Jorgenson and Harriet Moncure Fellows, she placed her complete trust in them. I asked her if she ever gave her teachers any ruling principles to abide by, but it was all trust. She hired them because she knew they could teach, and trusted their instincts. When Elisa Clark was a student at the school, she assisted Tensia with some younger age groups. “There was so much trust she placed in me. She liked when I would speak up and give corrections. And that, I think, was the beginning of me feeling comfortable at the front of a room,” says Clark, who now does guest teaching, rehearsal directing and stages works at schools and companies across the country.
As for Tensia’s own teaching skills, something she didn’t mention herself, but which every other person I spoke to brought up, is her passionate attention to detail and her hands-on approach. Tensia built sets for her ballets, she sewed small, delicate details to each of her tutus, and she treated her students as she did her (famous) home garden—tending to each flower, watering regularly, providing mulch and sunlight. Michelle Lees, former artistic director of Maryland Youth Ballet, told me a story about how Tensia once decided to repaint her picket fence. Instead of adding a coat on top, she removed each picket, sanded it, painted around every edge, washed it and nailed it back into place. That’s the kind of passion and detail you could expect when you were a student of Tensia Fonseca.
Tensia took adult ballet class regularly until her mid-90s. Now, in her 100th year of life, and the 50th anniversary of the school she founded, she spends much of her time with her sons Julio, John and James. Her sons Peter Fonseca, who danced with ABT, and Paul Fonseca both died of AIDS-related complications in the 1980s. Right now, her daffodils are starting to bloom in her still very lush garden. And more than anything, she’s excited to be soon attending a rehearsal at MYB for an upcoming production of her ballet, Coronation of the Dragonfly Queen. I’m sure she’ll be taking some notes.