Former Ballerina Left To Die In Isolation Finds Russian Woman Who Saved Her Life 47 Years Ago
Ballet is a dance associated with elegance and strength, but when former ballerina Debbie Gayle found herself weak, isolated and locked in a hospital room, her life was a world away from the passion she’d hoped to pursue.
Debbie, who is now 64, fell in love with ballet when she was seven years old, after being told she had talent for the dance. The teacher’s praise made Debbie feel ‘special’, and she described herself as being ‘seduced… into a fairy land world.’
While many young dancers eventually move on to other interests, Debbie became ‘obsessed’ with the hobby and attempted to continue dancing into her older years by attending The Royal Ballet School in London.
The teen was sure she had what it took to get into the prestigious school, which is ‘one of the world’s greatest centres of classical ballet training’, according to its website. Admission is based ‘purely on talent and potential’, so when Debbie found herself rejected, she felt ‘lost’.
Still, she was determined not to give up, and after recognising that Russian dancers had the best training in the world, Debbie set her sights on travelling to what was then the Soviet Union to receive the renowned training.
With the help of her ballet teacher, Debbie was able to secure a scholarship from The British Council, which saw her become the first ballet student to travel to Russia.
She knew nothing about the Soviet Union at the time, and described it as being a ‘closed and alien country’ during what was then the height of the Cold War. Debbie wasn’t deterred, however, and told UNILAD that although she was 17 years old at the time, she was ‘childlike’ in her ability to ‘imagine how wonderful it was to go to this incredible school’ ‘so much so that she had ‘not considered any reality.’
When she arrived at the Kirov school, which is now known as Mariinsky Ballet, Debbie learned other students had been told ‘not to engage’ with her, because she was from the west. She had no contact with the British Consulate or even her family following her arrival into Russia, and was considered ‘suspicious’ by those around her.
As a result, the 17-year-old was ‘very much on [her] own,’ and wasn’t even shown where she should go to eat while at school. On her second day, when she was feeling ‘very lost and scared,’ Debbie encountered a girl named Natasha, who was working at the Kirov at the time.
Natasha found Debbie crying on the stairs, and as she knew a few words of English the two girls were able to communicate, with the Russian girl telling Debbie not to cry. The former ballerina described attaching herself to Natasha ‘like a drowning person to a log’, explaining: ‘She was kind and warm… I had never felt such gratitude in my life.’
She remained friends with Natasha over the next three months, but at the same time Debbie was unknowingly becoming more and more ill. The teenager wasn’t getting the nutrition she needed during her time at the school, and didn’t realise she had been drinking tap water that ultimately gave her Hepatitis A.
Over time, it became a struggle for Debbie to keep going, and the symptoms of her illnesses gradually overtook her until staff at the school began to notice. One night, Debbie was told to follow members of staff out of her bedroom, where she was taken to hospital and put in a room that locked from the outside.
Scared and weak, Debbie had no idea what was happening, or whether anyone would come to help her. She described her days in the room as a ‘blur’, during which she believes she was given drugs to help her sleep, but no food.
Nurses observed her through a glass window in the door, and for nearly a week rarely spoke to Debbie, leaving her ‘terrified of how [it] was going to end’.
With the door locked from the outside, Debbie had no chance of escaping until one day she suddenly spotted Natasha’s face through the window. In what she described as ‘the happiest moment of [her] life,’ Debbie recalled seeing Natasha hold a finger to her lips to encourage her to be quiet.
Natasha unlocked the hospital door, and together they snuck down a corridor and out of a fire escape. Natasha took Debbie to her mother’s flat, where she was put in bed and given soup in an effort to help her regain her strength.
Knowing the young ballerina needed help, Natasha went to the British Consulate and helped arrange for Debbie to be taken home, in spite of the risks that could have come with helping the ‘suspicious’ westerner.
As the pair said goodbye at the airport in 1974, Natasha told Debbie she was ‘going away’, and Debbie had no idea whether this was a ‘punishment’ for her helping her. She was terrified Natasha would face repercussions for her actions or if she attempted to reach out again in the future, so she had no idea what became of her saviour after her return to England.
Debbie had little choice but to go home, however, and she was met with the shocked faces of her parents when she stepped off the plane. The ballet dancer was taken to Guy’s Hospital in London, where she learned she was suffering from malnutrition and officially diagnosed with Hepatitis.
Despite finally receiving the help she needed, Debbie was hit with a sense of ‘failure and loneliness’ after her time at the Kirov came to an end, even though staying might have ultimately killed her.
For almost 50 years, Debbie kept a photo of Natasha by her bed to remind her of her time in Russia, despite having no idea what happened to the young woman who saved her life. It wasn’t until she began opening up about her story for a podcast produced by her son, Jake, titled Finding Natasha, that she finally began to learn about the events that took place after her escape.
With the help of a Russian investigator, Jake managed to track down Natasha so she and Debbie could finally reconnect, even though all he had to go off was his mother’s memories, Natasha’s name, and an old picture.
Debbie described being thrown into her past as ‘incredible, emotional [and] surreal,’ and expressed her gratitude to Jake for the work he put into finding Natasha and for finally allowing her questions to be replaced with answers. The former ballerina was delighted to know Natasha was alive and well, and that her efforts to help Debbie hadn’t resulted in any punishment.
Much like she had almost 50 years ago, Natasha had to encourage Debbie not to cry when they spoke. This time, though, they were tears of joy.
To hear more about Debbie’s story, you can listen to the podcast Finding Natasha here.
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