Ballet dancers can seem like visitors from another, not-quite-real world - sprites maybe, alighting in our midst for the most fleeting of moments. They skim across the floor on the tips of their toes or sail through the air on invisible wings and then, because ballet is ephemeral, they're gone.
Mary Saludares, 20, a dancer with the Washington Ballet's junior company, was killed last week, struck by a car as she tried to cross a street shortly after performing at Harford Community College - now, sadly, the last venue to be visited by this particular sprite.
I've taken an adult ballet class on Saturdays at the Washington Ballet's school for many years now, one that is largely populated by earthbound mortals like me. We have real lives - families and jobs, mortgages and dirty dishes - but, at least on Saturdays and maybe only in our mind's eye, we, too, soar.
But given that the school is attached to a professional company, our class attracts the occasional performer, or pre-pro, as they call the budding ones; usually they are there to make up a missed class or are rehabbing an injury by taking a less-demanding class.
It's pretty amazing to take class with them, akin to playing a pickup basketball game and suddenly LeBron is there saying he's got next.
I remember Mary turning up at the barre a couple of times. You always can tell the real dancers - the regal posture, the hyper-arched feet, the nonchalant way they'll grab a foot and hoist their leg up against their ear. She had all that, plus huge eyes and a totally endearing smile. The other thing I noticed was that she looked as if she might be a fellow Filipino. Now, reading all the online tributes to her, and seeing she had that sweet tooth we all seem to be born with, I wish I'd thought to bring her some of my mom's ensemadas.
One of the pleasures of the Washington Ballet is how casually international it is; it draws dancers from its Wisconsin Avenue neighborhood - Chelsea Clinton studied there when she was a student at nearby Sidwell Friends - and as far away as Japan and South Africa. After a while, you really do see past their races and ethnicities; they simply seem like uniformly long-legged, preternaturally graceful citizens of this world of ballet.
"Dance is such a universal language it doesn't really matter where you're from," says Kee-Juan Han, the director of the school and a native of Singapore. "You just see the movement and the beauty." Han taught Mary during her time as a student in the school's pre-professional program, from which she was selected last year to join the Studio Company, which can serve as a stepping stone to the main company. In what is a highly competitive world, she was known for her gentle, friendly ways as much as her accomplished dancing. "She was just lovely," Han said of a performance last spring dancing an iconic solo from Swan Lake.
"Some dancers have a lot of technique, that is their drive. But some dancers are born with a more innate quality. For Mary, everything came from inside. She had this passion," Han said. "Even at rehearsal, she danced as if she was on stage."
Like the elite athletes that they are, many ballet dancers leave home and their families at a young age. For them, the studio becomes home, and their fellow dancers family.
"I feel like there is something missing," Robert Mulvey, 15, a student, said of this past week.
Robert, who is from Montgomery County, considered Mary almost a sister; they met soon after she joined the school, one level above him, and became inseparable. "Joined at the hip," he said.
He didn't believe it when someone texted him late Friday night with the news, and only was convinced the next morning when the calls began flying within the Washington Ballet family about her death. (Maryland State Police said no charges would be filed in the accident because the driver had the light, but owners of the hotels and restaurants in the area have asked Harford County Executive David Craig to investigate whether the intersection needs to be made safer for pedestrians.)
The Washington Ballet brought grief counselors in on Saturday. Still, they had to get back to work almost immediately: Robert and other students are performing tonight in a show to raise funds for a ballet competition in Connecticut next week.
Mary, a prizewinner herself in other competitions, wouldn't have joined the group in Connecticut - the contest is for amateurs not professionals, even one as newly minted as she.
"I still picture her dancing, how beautiful she was," Robert said. "I used to do a pas de deux class with her, and she was very easy to partner. But we never did a show together."