Graduation Speech by Olga Guardia de Smoak, Class of 1957

Dear Roycemore Class of 2020,

I am very honored to have been chosen to address you on your Graduation Day from Roycemore. I am also happy to share with you a description of my life and career, and to leave you with some sign posts that might serve to guide your steps as you embark on the exciting yet unfamiliar road ahead. My sister Gloria and I came to Roycemore when our parents moved temporarily from Panama to the USA in 1953. Our father was to work as an international consulting engineer for the firm Greeley and Hansen, based in Chicago. This firm was working in the design of the major waterworks of Brasil, Panama, Peru and other Latin American countries.

Our family move to the USA meant that in a short time we had to begin studying in a foreign language and assimilating a culture different from the one which we had known up to that point. I do not know for sure, but it is possible that we were the first foreign students Roycemore had welcomed since its founding. Our parents made the decision to enroll us at Roycemore because classes at the school were small as they continue being today. They also knew of the academic reputation of Roycemore and had heard that teachers were not only excellent but caring and empathetic, as I have no doubt they are today. We were both extraordinarily happy at Roycemore, and were always most grateful that our parents had made the choice they did.

After RoycemoreI I entered Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. My sister followed me there a year later. We were both happy there and in later years commented many times how seamlessly the transition had been from high school to college because of the ideal preparation we had received at Roycemore. The fact that we shared memories of being both at Roycemore  and at Vassar together were an added joyful bonus! At Vassar we studied once again in small classes and seminars and once again we were under pedagogues that believed in teaching us how to think. They moved us to search for factual truths and moral truths. Both at Roycemore and Vassar these wise guides gave us confidence in ourselves as they pointed us to the fact that we are all intrinsic players in a worldwide culture, and that -as educated humans- we are called to participate in a creative way, and to contribute in a positive manner to the shared “universal home” we all share.

At Vassar I also went into the humanities, majoring in French studies (for which my Roycemore teacher Mme. McAllister had prepared so well). In addition I studied Russian, not guessing that years later, this knowledge would open up for me worlds that in the 1960’s at the height of the Cold War seemed a mirage.  I had studied ballet through childhood and adolescence. In fact, Roycemore knew of this passion of mine, and the Administration, in its perceptive understanding, allowed me to skip after school sports events, so that I could go to Chicago every day and there study with wonderful masters from the Ballet Russes and the English Royal Ballet.  I ultimately stopped dancing. But studying Russian and Russian literature, French, history of theatre, and history of art at Vassar, began to provide for me the necessary links among worlds that until then were mere enigmas.

In addition, at college, I began to learn to organize knowledge, to express complex thoughts more and more clearly, and above all to reach without fear, for goals that were important even if they seemed distant, even unreachable. I stop here to send to you one of the major sign posts that I promised and which I hope will serve you well, as you embark on your new path. Study what you love, and pursue your studies with enthusiasm and energy . Learn to reason well, and share your reasoning with your teachers and your classmates. Dare to be an iconoclast if you can defend your choices, but do not be afraid to tackle what is difficult and seems to others unattainable. Knowledge and belief, backed by knowledge and faith will open the necessary doors. Above all make sure that your dreams and goals serve others, and that you enlarge their world as you enlarge yours. If you serve others while you create, you will be part of resolving tensions which separate us humans, and in creating you will be part of the progress of mankind.

Now back to the story….After college I went back to Panama where I worked as an interpreter, then I met my husband (a wonderful American) and was lucky enough to move with him to New Orleans. So far, no ballet …my current career in the ballet world began in 1975 when the Bolshoi Theatre Ballet of Moscow came to New Orleans.  This company had the magic I had envisioned during my Roycemore years. I managed to befriend two of the leading dancers in the few days they were in New Orleans, and they suggested that I come to Chicago and New York to see more performances. An impulse from adolescent dreams took over and I did just that. Subsequently, a dear friend emboldened me to carry the idea further and give it weight. She suggested that I write a script for a TV series on the Bolshoi and that I convince the New Orleans PBS to film it in Moscow. Why not go ‘to the source” and be the first to break this Cold War barrier? Indeed!

So I wrote the script and went to Russia (on my own) to test my dreams. My Bolshoi friends fulfilled their promise. They provided ballet tickets, remarked on my good Russian and helped me get the project to the Ministries.  I came back and PBS received a cable that the contract had been approved, however it was beyond PBS’s means. I refused to give up. We decided to do the film ourselves as a modest series of shorter films.

And here comes the second guidepost: be persistent and creative when obstacles occur. Sometimes miracles beget miracles. The result was beyond our expectations. We were totally welcomed by the Directors of the Company. We practically moved in, becoming friends with the entire group, including the backstage personnel.  Our new friends hoped for an invitation to dance as guests  with an American company.  They asked a favor, I agreed . How could I refuse?

The well regarded but small regional company of New Orleans which I contacted was astonished but decided to risk it. The contract was sent for the first time ever of two Bolshoi stars dancing with an American company.  The Bolshoi stars came, they danced divinely, they conquered and we knew that with faith it could be done again!  More miracles followed. The Bolshoi invited the New Orleans group to come and enjoy the following year’s Winter Festival in Russia.  This trip was the beginning of years travelling back and forth leading groups of teachers and ballet students to Russia to watch classes, rehearsals and performances. Friendships were made, knowledge shared, distances shortened, artistic worlds interconnected, fears of “enemies” assuaged, and overcome. Rather amazing in the midst of the Cold War.

In any case, by 1985 after the Cold War tensions began to lessen, Soviet dancers and choreographers were able to accept US contracts, and modern dance choreographers were able to stage works in what was still called the Soviet Union. I thought to myself, “how can I serve next?”  Well, by working in Russia itself of course. Another sign post: Do not fear embarking on a different path that will test you and stretch you even more. The early 1990s were very difficult for the Russians. Prices rose while the rouble fell to 10% of its former value, incomes were pitiful.  However, the Russians adapted and negotiated and bartered and by sharing their lives I learned to do the same. For me personally, those five years in Moscow were a childhood dream come miraculously true.

At the end of the chaotic Yeltsin years I came back to New Orleans. I was coming back bringing with me the invaluable experience of my years in Russia and Western Europe and was ready to embark on further challenging adventures. Soon, I was offered a position to teach a course in Ballet History at Loyola University of New Orleans. I had never taught at a University but I knew that I wanted to share with others what I knew and what I had experienced. So I accepted this new challenge trying to bring to life what others had passed on to me.  In the past decade I have been going back to Panama, to lecture, to advise, and to bring Russian teachers and choreographers to re-stage the classics.

This is the end of the story for now. As you can see, my dreams came true. Roycemore and Vassar pushed me forward. Curiosity and love of adventure, energy and a willingness to help others were other motivators. With great luck the end result was an unexpected world of marvels that I owe to something beyond my own self, which gives me the feeling that somehow the path I followed was one that I was meant to trod.

So I wish the same for you. Pursue your dreams, search for things beyond the self. Befriend others far from you and dare to reach for those unlike you. Learn to trust and trust in love.

Always Roycemore.

Olga Guardia de Smoak, Class of 1957