Dancer and Teacher Irine Fokine Dies at 88

Irine Fokine, photo by Chris Peters for

On December 5th, Irine Fokine died at the age of 88.  She was the founder of Irine Fokine School of Ballet in Ridgewood, New Jersey, where for over sixty years countless students and I trained in a rigorous, disciplined environment.  Ms. Fokine is the niece of choreographer Michel Fokine, and her mother, Alexandra Fedorova, was a prima ballerina at the Maryinsky Theater in Russia.  Irine moved to the United States in 1938, and she danced for many years before establishing her school.  Her school’s annual Nutcracker was produced for the last fifty-two years, and was the performance highlight for her students (I have vivid memories of rehearsing for and performing myriad roles in her production…year after year after year).

Ms. Fokine was a strict disciplinarian and as a teacher, she meant business.  I considered myself lucky that she never made me cry – a common occurrence among the younger ballet students.  But her rigorous approach stemmed from her passion for and dedication to classical ballet.  She devoted her life to it, and her school stayed open until this past August, when she decided to close the school and retire.  It’s a bit spooky that she died so shortly after closing the studio – it was so much a part of who she was that it’s as if she couldn’t live on without it.  Also, December was usually her busiest month as she frantically prepared for her school’s Nutcracker, so it’s ironic – yet perhaps fitting – that she passed away at this time.

I heard from another one of Fokine’s students that she said, “I’ve lived my life exactly the way I wanted to.  Now all I have to do is go to hell for it.”  Indeed, she was quite the character.  Ms. Fokine will be deeply missed by me and the many individuals who studied with her.  She shared her tremendous love of dance and passion for artistic excellence with so many students, and she’ll always be remembered.

For more on Irine Fokine, read Editor in Chief of Dance Magazine Wendy Perron’s reflections on her time as a student at the school.

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13 Responses to Dancer and Teacher Irine Fokine Dies at 88

  1. I never knew Miss Fokine, but I went to see The Nutcracker every year. I will sadly miss her. I wish I could have met her.

  2. Shayla Morgan says:

    My sister and I studied dance at Irine’s studio back in the 70’s and early 80’s. She definitely made us both cry. I am proud to say that my big sister went on to study in Europe. Anthea was in the corps de ballet at The National Ballet of Canada. She also started a flamenco dance studio in Kingston. Another fond memory was seeing Irine swim every summer at Graydon pool and riding around in her convertible. She sure did contribute to our lives and will be remembered.

  3. Wendy Roehrich says:

    I studied with Irine Fokine and her sister Gloria for 11 years. Not only was I privileged to have had this experience, but I got to listen to the most beautiful live piano played by Ruth 3-4 times a week. How many people can say they had that for 11 years.Now at age 54, sometimes people point out this grace I still have. I have Irine to thank for that.Often I would venture to NYC to go to some of the other schools, but none were better than Fokine.

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  5. Chris Ordway says:

    I too never met Irine Fokine but her ballet studio was definitely known for the NUtcracker productions. My daughters and I were fortunate enough to see her Nutcracker several times when they wer young. We even saw the production with Baryshnikov!

  6. Pat Pearson says:

    I started ballet lessons from Irene at the age of 4 and continued until the age of 12. I was one of her stars. My sister and I performed in all of Irene’s productions, including Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and La Boehm. I never got to be Clara, but was privileged to be one of the toys and one of the mice as well as a snowflake. We were also asked to join the NYC Ballet Company for some productions. Irene knew what she was doing and her discipline is what made her dancers great. If any of you remember Carol Rioux, she was trained by Irene as well.

  7. joanne obrien mcintosh says:

    My sister and I took ballet from Irene’s ballet studio in Ridgewood, NJ in the early 60ies. Gloria, her sister was our teacher. We would ofter see Irene float in and out of the studio and was always in awe

  8. Joyce Phillips-Stengel says:

    I was privilidged to be instructed by Ms. Fokine for a number of years in my adulthood. I did not know a lot of her history, until I read the tributes to her. I did know she was the niece of the famous choreographer Michael Fokine. She worked me as hard as anyone else and the discipline was great. I was born a ballet “freak.” That is I love it to this day. I live in Florida and am 69 years old, and still take lessons.

  9. Pamela Stevens says:

    I began ballet study with Irine Fokine around 1950. I wonder about the Nutcracker dates as I was in one of the early performances (I was a snowflake and a candy cane). I stopped study around 1955 and participated in many other production including Sleeping Beauty and The Seasons. I recall her daughter, Nina, as a featured performer in at least one of the performances. I believe her mother came to class a few times. I am a classical singer (opera/oratorio) and voice teacher now and credit Irine Fokine’s influence as an inspiration. Good memories.

  10. Joyce Stengel says:

    I too took a few years with Miss Fokine, she was fantastic. I was born to love two things that I can’t see an influence in my life, one was the ballet, the other skiing. She was the best teacher I ever had in ballet. She worked you hard, didn’t believe in air-conditioning in the summer, I had to wear a bandanna to stop the sweat from getting in my eyes. I wish she were hear today, at nearly 70 years old, I would still take a class from her. Sadly, she is not hear. I’m glad I sent a card to her in 2009, to let her know how much she meant to me, and how much I appreciated her class. I helped out in the only year she did not do “The Nutcracker,” she did a “Christmas Carol.” Thanks for the e-mail, I can’t praise her enough. Joyce Stengel, Cape Coral, Fl.

  11. Lynn Beckman says:

    I studied with Irene Fokine for a number of years and, to this day, wish I had continued. I was good at it and don’t even remember why I stopped. I did go on to Figure Skating, and the ballet training I had received was a big help. She was a strict disciplinarian, but she never made me cry.
    I will never forget the day I got my first pair of Pointe shoes… Marcus Shoes in Ridgewood and the thrill of dancing in her recitals. She will be missed, but her name and legend will live on.

  12. Sari Reid says:

    I don’t know if it’s too late to leave a message, but if not, I would just like to say I cried there too! Haha. But I would not have changed anything about those many years I spent dancing with “Miss Fokine” even if I had been able. Gloria, Leon, Andrushka, and who can forget Jeannette Hoffman- all talented, inspiring teachers. And Marge at the piano! I was fortunate to go on to join Pennsylvania Ballet Company and made lifelong friends there as well.
    Yes, her legend lives on, to be sure.
    Sari Braff Reid
    Fairfield, CT

  13. Damian Miles says:

    Irine was tough. She never really gave you an inch, much less a yard. But was she kind enough to give me a chance at 19, never having had a ballet class until that day. My dad was one of those dads that said “Dancing is not for boys and besides that, you’re too old now, that’s the kind of career you have to start very, very young. It’s time for college.” Being headstrong and full of myself with a will of iron, I marched out of my parent’s house and down the hill right into Irine Fokine’s ballet school and I saw her sitting on a stool next to the desk knowing full well that she must be Ms. Fokine and the owner of the school, and she was. I said to her, with great assurance and self awareness that to this day I still don’t know where it came from, deep inside I guess… “I want to be a ballet dancer!” I’ll never forget the way she looked at me and she barely cracked a smile as she then asked, “Have you had any training?” I said “Well, I’ve watched Fred Astaire and I’ve danced my whole life but no, I’ve never had any formal training.” The school was empty and she must have been between classes and on break. She asked me “What’s your name?” I said “Jim Mileski”. and she said, “Ah, you’re Polish… well that’s a good start! Come with me Jim, let me have a look at you.” I was petrified! We walked into the studio where she held dance classes and just looking at the bar and all those mirrors made me happy on contact. She said “Show me what you can do.” So I did. All I can say is thank God for Fred Astaire and all those wonderful films I watched time and time again prior to that moment. I proceeded to shanay across the floor like I was going to burn a whole in the floor like Morticia Adams/Angelica Houston did in the film “Adams FamilyValues”. Then I did a couple of sloppy jete’s and one great spin like an iceskater without spotting. But if I do say so myself I could have drilled a hole to China then, I was only 19 and at that perfect moment she said, “You’re hired. But you’ll need to enroll in the school for 6 months and then I’ll make my final decision.” I couldn’t believe my ears! It was a MIRACLE! So there I was for 6 months, taking classes with children in the daytime and adults in the evening. Thanks to lovely Jeanette Hoffman and the handsome Jeremy Ives, how much they did for me! Jeanette was sweet and she pushed me too. Thank God for that because all Irine did was push, berate and slap me from side to side. As I said, Irine was tough and never gave and inch, much less a yard. But she gave me a lot more than that. She gave me a life in ballet and my dream came true. Six months later I became one of her dancers and there I was, dancing in the Nutcracker where I played an adequate Russian, I got to do Swan Lake at the Ridgewood Band Shell, barely adequate again, as well as a photographer in the Nutcracker with my Daughter Amber when she was just a baby… I even got to play “Puck” in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and if I do say so myself, I finally did that rather well. I got to be part of a very special dance company called the Irine Fokine Ballet Company… after all everybody knows that the Great Michael Folkine is the Father of Ballet and Irine is part of that Royal bloodline. So many thanks to Irine Folkine for allowing me to fullfill a dream, it has served me well. After a few short years with the company, I went on to the Fred Astaire Dance School in Ridgewood where I taught Ballroom for almost ten years and became the head of the Theater Arts Department. Thanks to Doug Clark who also gave me a chance to fulfill my dream and become a dancer. From there I went onto dance in nightclubs in NYC; Studio 54, Cat Club, Roseland, Danceteria, LImelight and more. Farewell Irine! Thanks again for giving me and so many others a chance to fulfill their dreams in the Wonderful World of Ballet. I am forever grateful and forever Yours. Rest in Peace Darling! – James Mileski, Irine Folkine Dancer

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