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  • Sam Darling

Ballerinas are tough as nails

My maternal great aunt Hermine is a spitfire who has always amazed the family with her abundant energy and stubborn streak.

She is tiny. Here she is in her teenage years, a sweet slip of a girl, looking smaller than even her father, the jockey. But as is often the case with people, looks are deceiving. This is a woman of great strength and force of character.

35 Chateau Egurande, Hector, Hermine

[1930s Chateau Egurande, France. Hermine & Hector.]

You’ll also notice her natural grace and elegance. It’s hardly surprising that she became a professional ballerina.


Hermine ballet in Libourne

My grandmother would join in the recitals to play the boy roles for her sister.

30s Millau, dance show with Helene & Hermine

[Hermine & Helene, 1940s Millau, France.]

Both women had powerful artistic careers and dynamic lives. Hermine has had many jobs in her long life, from business owner to doyenne of her city political scene as the wife of a prominent politician. And all the while she is tiny and elegant everyone knows she also has a rapier mind and a spine of stainless steel. When her contemporaries were slowing down in retirement she went on to become the bridge champion of all France. She is incredibly clever as well as beautiful in that particular Southern France sort of way: sultry and mysterious. Watching her dance flamenco is a joy.

Hermine flamenco

These days she paints under the name Claire Vilas and has made a new career out of that talent–a skill she taught herself shortly before recovering from cataract surgery. Because that’s what you do when you’re blinded, you take up a new career as a painter and you make it work.

Nothing seems so slow her down. As a truculent teen I complained about boredom one night and she whipped out her accordion and did a singing and dancing one-woman spectacle and entertained me for an hour. I laugh about it still.

On visiting her a few summers ago my mother started singing pieces from Carmen and Hermine felt compelled to dance along. [I’m being discrete filming from the hallway as I didn’t want to disrupt the magic.]

So it is perhaps understandable then that when I heard my great-aunt had experienced a home invasion last week my first thought was sympathy for the would-be robbers! Those poor bastards had no idea about ballerinas.

“At 88 years old, she hunts down her attackers. Hermine put to flight the two men who tried to rob her at her home in the daytime. She wants to tell her story to warn other elderly people.”

Newspaper Hermine home invasion
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