Kennedy Center honoree Patricia McBride looks back at ballet career

When people watched Patricia McBride dance, many said they could almost feel her joy. Passion radiated from the point of her toes to the tips of her fingers.

She danced in more than 100 ballets throughout her career, but those created for her by the genius George Balanchine were the most glorious.

He was the world's most innovative and influential choreographer, and she was his muse.

"I was 16 when I joined the New York City Ballet. He was a father figure for me," McBride said. "He was the man I most admired and loved and wanted to do well for him ... And when you dance it takes a lot of stamina, but it never seemed like work 'cause I was doing something that I so loved doing. It was always a joy. And you know, to have beautiful ballets made specially for you is such an honor. I always said it was better than diamonds."

McBride was just 18 years old when she became the New York City Ballet's youngest principal dancer ever.

She was shy yet tireless. Her work ethic unmatched.

Ballanchine taught her speed and strength. And her dance partners, some of ballet's best, taught her even more.

"It was extraordinary 'cause I was 17 years old when I first danced with Edward Villella. And we were both young. But I had seen him dance and he was already a star," McBride said. "So he was just so gentle and wonderful and kind, and we had a great rapport together. He was one of the most exciting dancers of our day.

"I danced with also with so many extraordinary partners at the time," McBride added. "Conrad Ludlow was an extraordinary partner ... We just called him the greatest partner because he just knew what a woman's balance was."

To be a great partner, McBride said one has to communicate and be sensitive to the timing and rhythm of a partner's pirouettes.

"It takes two to tango. Two people have to make something beautiful," she said.

In 1970, the dashing Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux joined the company. Although they only danced together a handful of times, three years later they formed Patti's most enduring partnership -- a marriage and later a family.

"When you're in love with someone, what could be better? I never thought I would end up marrying a dancer, and it just came as such surprise. And a wonderful surprise. Takes a lot of work to stay married, it's not easy," McBride said, laughing. "But I found my soul mate and he's been so supportive of me all these years."

Today they partner in running their own ballet company, The Charlotte Ballet, where McBride passes on the Balanchine fundamentals that are part of her DNA to the next generation.

Her dancers may only dream of achieving the heights of McBride's career, now culminated in becoming an esteemed Kennedy Center honoree.

"It's one of the greatest awards one can get. I have such respect for ... the Kennedy Center Honors. To be an artist in America and to be honored for it is extraordinary. In Europe, they really honor their artists. And you are on a very high level. And here it's not as revered as it is in Europe or Russia or anywhere in the world," McBride said.

It's been more than 50 years since McBride first danced on the stage at Lincoln Center. In her long decorated career she danced in 60 principal roles -- 30 created just for her. When she decided to dance for the very last time, the city and company where she called home gave her a farewell fit for a queen, complete with 13,000 roses.

When McBride thought she didn't want to dance anymore, she said it wasn't traumatic because she had danced for 30 years.

"I loved what I was doing. I mean, I did it all. I had danced over 100 ballets ... I was actually 47 when I stopped ... I had a life I never dreamed I'd have," McBride said. "It was better than any dream I could've imagined."