Aging ballerina inspires Chen's poem

Jan Garrison

Work to be published


November 18, 2021

Like everyone during the COVID-19 pandemic, Xinyi (Cindy) Chen ’22 watched her share of online videos. But one video, in particular, touched her heart.

The YouTube video shows Spanish ballerina Marta Cinta González Saldaña listening to Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” while confined in a wheelchair due to advanced Alzheimer’s disease. She was prima ballerina with the New York Ballet in the 1960s. She passed away in March, 2020.

The video, which has more than 14 million views, splices footage of González Saldaña dancing on stage in the 1960s with her movements while listening to the music through a set of headphones. It was made by a Spanish organization that uses music therapy to improve the mood and memory of those afflicted by memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer's disease. She was living in a senior residential facility in Valencia, Spain, when the video was recorded in 2019.

“I watched the video exactly one year ago when I was still in virtual learning,” Chen (Xiamen Shi, China) said. “I was immediately touched by this emotional moment. The very next day, I wrote the poem, and it became one of my favorite pieces of writing.”

And, now, it has been accepted for publication in The Louisville Review, a major literary magazine that has published works by Pulitzer Prize-winning poets Stephen Dunn and Claudia Emerson, and New York Times bestselling writer Ursula Hegi.

The poem, “The Life of a Swan,” is written from the ballerina’s perspective, Chen explained, and provides glimpses into the ballerina’s life. “From her vibrant youth, her performance, to the affliction of Alzheimer’s, and eventually her death, I intentionally blurred the boundary of distance and time, as well as her life and her character in ‘Swan Lake’ on stage.”



The poem is in the form of villanelle, a form of poetry introduced to Chen by instructor Josh Brown in her Honors in Creative Writing class last year. Chen said villanelle requires a certain way of repetition and rhyming, “which I considered as the best way to resemble a piece of music.”

“The poem, I hope, conveys not only the power of our devotion to the things we love and are passionate about but also how humans never yield to diseases, pain, and death even if the time remaining in our lives are only as short – or as long – as the length of a ballet performance.”

Chen’s only revisions to the poem were minor after the initial writing.

“I didn’t make big changes to the structure; the changes are mostly made to word choices,” she explained. One example was finding the best verb for the beating of the heart. “I changed it a million times until I found the word ‘reverberate’ in the last stanza, which also means ‘to continue as in a series of echoes,’ resonating with the repetition in my poem.”

The Creative Writing class did conduct a review session, where the other students weighed in on the poem, Brown said. There wasn’t much to change – if anything. “There are good student writers and then there are good writers,” he explained. “Cindy is a good writer.”

Chen decided to submit the poem for publication after the class had a discussion over how hard it would be to make a living as a writer. “Mr. Brown showed us lists of various awesome publications and reviews and said, ‘A good first step to make a living by writing will be starting to submit to these publications.’”

The Louisville Review was listed. Chen looked over its website and past issues. “I felt connected to the poems published in the Review and its ideals. So, I submitted my favorite poem to it.”

And she recently received an email back telling her “The Life of a Swan” will be published in its upcoming issue.

Earlier this fall, Brown and Chen attended a lecture by author Jacqueline Woodson at St. Mary’s College next to the University of Notre Dame. Woodson is the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, National Book Award-winner, four-time Newbery Honor winner, the Hans Christian Anderson Award and a MacArthur Fellow. Chen was one of a handful of high school students invited to attend the session.

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