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Sydney Leonard, inspiring ballet mistress for generations of young dancers in ‘The Nutcracker,’ dies at 100

Sydney Leonard, a teacher at the Boston Ballet, helped a young hopeful through a dance step during tryouts for “The Nutcracker” in 1996.The Boston Globe/File 1996

Surrounded by children she was teaching to dance in roles as reindeer and angels and candy canes in the Boston Ballet’s annual performances of “The Nutcracker,” Sydney Leonard would transform into the performer she had once been, and always would be.

“I can’t teach sitting down. I get up and demonstrate; I run around,” she told the Globe in 1983, when she was 64. “Children are born imitators; that’s how they learn. We have 10-year-olds here who can do every step of ‘The Nutcracker.’ ”

The ballet mistress who guided generations of Greater Boston dancers through their first steps on stage, she taught well into her 80s, never losing the poise and posture of the teacher students knew as Miss Leonard.

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She was 100 when she died Thursday in her apartment in The Cambridge Homes in Cambridge.

A dancer since she was 5 and a teacher for some 60 years, Miss Leonard helped founder E. Virginia Williams launch the Boston Ballet School and the Boston Ballet, which formerly was the New England Civic Ballet.

For the company and school, at practices and performances, Miss Leonard was a teacher and a choreographer and so much more. “Sometimes I pulled the curtain, too,” she recalled in 1978.

An expert seamstress, she also made costumes and could repair a faulty costume in breathless backstage minutes, mid-performance.

Miss Leonard did all this, along with teaching classes late into the evenings and on weekends, while holding a day job at The Atlantic Monthly, where she became the magazine’s circulation manager.

“She instilled a work ethic: You do it until you get it right,” said Laura Young, who formerly was the principal at the Boston Ballet School and had been the Boston Ballet Company’s principal dancer.

As a 10-year-old, Young saw Miss Leonard dance in a performance, and soon became her student.

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“I was enamored of her beauty, grace, and her warm welcome of all us little kids,” Young said.

At a celebration for her 95th birthday, Miss Leonard said that decades ago, she and Williams realized their efforts training young dancers were mostly “for the benefit” of ballet companies in New York City.

“So I said, ‘We should have our own company, here in Boston,’ ” Miss Leonard recalled that day in 2014.

Let dancers train in Boston and perform in Boston, she added in her remarks, which are posted on YouTube.

That vision expanded the city’s arts culture and provided a stepping stage for scores of dancers who became performers and teachers.

Her efforts left a legacy “not only for Boston’s ballet world, but across the country because she’s trained so many dancers,” Young said. “She was a very petite woman, and it belied the enormity of her personality and her strength.”

Seemingly ageless in photos, Miss Leonard brought intensity to each moment.

“She looks the very definition of a ballerina: bird-like, more sparrow than swan, with hair pulled back in a bun, now graying,” Globe arts critic Christine Temin wrote in the 1983 profile.

A memorable 1975 Globe photograph of Miss Leonard offering last-minute advice before a “Nutcracker” performance looks like a black-and-white Norman Rockwell painting. She gazes through glasses at girls and boys gathered close.

“Her posture is that of a dancer as she leans forward, and she leans forward because they are children, and they are small. She meets them at eye level,” said her nephew, Peter Leonard, a longtime orchestra conductor.

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And though dance was Miss Leonard’s discipline, her influence reached beyond stages and pointe shoes to touch everyone who, like her, yearned for a creative life.

“I think she was probably one of the most important role models, not just for me, but literally for thousands of artists, mostly dancers, over the decades of her work,” her nephew said.

Born in Quincy on Sept. 29, 1919, Sydney Eva Leonard was the daughter of Owen Leonard and Olive Lucas. She was the younger of two children whose father learned to be a dentist through an apprenticeship. Their mother was an amateur pianist and accomplished seamstress who used a wheelchair due to severe arthritis.

“I took care of her until she died in 1948; then my father and I moved to the small apartment where I still live, near Fenway Park,” Miss Leonard said in 1983. “He died in 1965; he was hit by a car in front of the apartment.”

And though she began dance lessons at 5, “there weren’t any companies in Boston when I was growing up,” she said. “It’s the tragedy of my life that by the time there were opportunities to dance, I was too old.”

Money was scarce. During the Great Depression, her father treated those who couldn’t pay. “He had a soft heart, which I think was an example to her — her mother’s lust for life and her father’s sense of charity and duty to others,” her nephew said.

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Determined to provide for others the opportunities she hadn’t had, Miss Leonard began teaching. Studying and then teaching with renowned ballet mistress Maria Paporello, Miss Leonard was later associated with the New England Conservatory before Williams recruited her as a teaching partner.

Teaching couldn’t pay the bills, though. After graduating from Quincy High School in 1937, Miss Leonard attended secretarial school and one day filled in for a clerk on vacation from The Atlantic. She stayed for 45 years.

Daily she worked until 5 p.m. and then walked to the ballet studios to teach until 10. Saturdays were filled with classes and students, too, as she gave over her life to choreographing and helping stage performances.

For audiences who see but one ballet a year, or in their entire lives, Miss Leonard’s accomplishments were on display among the youngest performers in “The Nutcracker.”

“She was remarkable as a teacher of the young ones,” said Young, who is still affiliated with the ballet school. “She was very patient, but she was a taskmaster. She didn’t mind going over things again and again until you got it.”

Upon Miss Leonard’s retirement more than a dozen years ago, the Boston Ballet established a scholarship in her name to help young dancers train.

A celebration of Miss Leonard’s life will be announced.

In addition to her nephew, Peter, she leaves a niece, Ellen, and their mother, Ethel — the wife of Miss Leonard’s late brother, John.

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Miss Leonard’s niece and nephew once tried to introduce new technology to help make easier her side discipline as a prolific writer of letters, cards, and thank-you notes. She declined.

“She kept a card file of people she wrote to regularly. Her Christmas cards were always very special and very specific,” Peter said. “She wanted to address them herself and to write a message, short or long, to each person. And she had beautiful penmanship — perfect and elegant and graceful.”

That attention to detail was reflected in her approach to teaching each young dancer, demonstrating each choreographed move as she cast open the door to creativity.

As news of her death spread, Young and others at the Boston Ballet were contacted by dancers and teachers across the country.

“They said they were fortunate to have been taught by her,” Young said, “and I was so fortunate to have been taught by her.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.