As Ballet's Romantic Leads, Dan Duell and Kyra Nichols Have a Leg Up on the Competition

updated 12/14/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/14/1981 01:00AM

The marriage of Kyra Nichols and Daniel Duell is proof that fairy tales are alive and well. She's exuberant, girlish and 23; he's sturdy, ail-American and 29, and together they are the darlings of the nation's premier dance company, the New York City Ballet. When they are through work about 11 every night, they walk the six blocks to their apartment holding hands, her head on his shoulder. They pour some white wine and relax in the tub. Then they race each other to the bedroom. "The last one in bed," Kyra giggles, "has to pull the other one's toes"—a way to work out the remaining kinks. In the morning they share a cold whirlpool. Then it's off for another day of rehearsing and performing, sometimes as partners. Says Nichols: "It's special when you're dancing with someone you love."

Whatever the reason, they have emerged as two of the hottest young performers in their ultracompetitive business. "I have danced with the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century," raves Jacques d'Amboise, who at 47 has been a City Ballet star for 28 years. "But every time I look at Kyra it breaks my heart that I'm not 20 years younger. She is now one of America's great ballerinas, and I will never really get to dance with her." Dan earns his share of superlatives too; one critic has described him as dancing with "the speed and lightness of a Mendels-sohnian scherzo." It was only natural that NYCB director George Balanchine would team Nichols and Duell in this year's holiday production of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. Dan is the handsome Prince, and Kyra is his Sugar Plum Fairy.

Married for three years, Kyra and Dan are as wedded to their work as they are to each other. They rise around 8, start class by 11 and, with time out for lunch together at a nearby coffee shop, usually dance until evening. By the final curtain "we're zombies," laughs Nichols. "If we didn't pour ice-cold water over each other's feet," adds Dan, "neither of us could walk the next morning."

At 5'8½", Dan is not an ideal partner for his 5'7½" wife, who finds she's "more comfortable dancing with taller boys." Sparks occasionally fly when they do work together. "We're not as bad as J.R. and Sue Ellen, but our fights come close to those of Pam and Bobby," Dan admits. (Dallas is one of their favorite TV programs, needless to say.) Most of the time they create a different kind of electricity. "We don't feel love performing together," Dan says. "But it is different from dancing with other partners. People say there's something special in the way we look at each other or how she reacts when I touch her."

Kyra is the daughter of Alexander Nichols, a professor of biophysics at the University of California at Berkeley, and his wife, Sally Streets, a former NYCB dancer who is an old friend of d'Amboise's. Dan is the son of a research engineer and an elementary school teacher in Dayton, Ohio. By coincidence, Kyra and Dan both lived for a while—but at different times—with the d'Amboise family after they first came to New York in the early 1970s. Says Jacques: "When they got married in 1978, I felt like the father of the bride and the father of the groom." Other figures in their professional family include Kyra's older brother, Robert, a dancer with the Chicago Ballet, and Dan's younger brother, Joseph, a promising NYCB soloist. He and Dan, though very close, have been rivals at times, particularly while both were studying at NYCB. Says Dan: "Balanchine is very much a parent figure. Vying for his approval is analogous to vying for Mom and Dad's."

Kyra started dancing in the ballet classes her mother used to teach in the basement of her grandmother's house in Berkeley. "She sassed me a lot," Sally recalls. "I was a real brat," Kyra admits. When the brat finally was banished from a class recital, Kyra recalls, "I just sat on the steps crying. I felt my career was over." She was 4.

"From her earliest birthdays," says her father, "she would create such a fuss if she didn't win every game at her parties that we had to give her a prize anyway. She also had this very warm and generous side of her nature, but it came out only when her toe shoes came off."

That wasn't often. Kyra's childhood was "ballet, ballet, ballet," she says. "They called me 'Pickles Nichols, the ballerina' at school." She stopped paying attention in class at age 6, she says, "because it didn't have anything to do with dancing. Even learning to read bored me." (She is still a poor reader.) She turned pro at 9, and by 11 was dancing with San Francisco's Pacific Ballet, where her mother was prima ballerina. By 12 she was stealing Mom's parts, including the Sugar Plum Fairy role in a 1970 Nutcracker. "I was a strongly competitive person," Sally says ruefully, "and she was as good as I was."

That same year Kyra won a scholarship to the NYCB's prep school from the famed scout Violette Verdy. Four years later, in 1974, she joined the company. "I felt she was carrying on a great tradition," says d'Amboise, who backed her. "She has a quality of pure aristocratic elegance that is not acting. It springs almost genetically."

Dan came to ballet by a much different route. His father, Seth, encouraged both his sons to go to dancing school, partly because he recognized that they were too small to play the rougher team sports. "I told him I'd rather do something masculine," Dan recalls. "What a relief it was the first day to see about 18 other guys there. But I still felt too ashamed to admit to my friends that I was taking ballet." He was 11 when he started, and it was years before he would admit he loved dancing. Gradually, he says, "I found there was an incredible physical thrill in moving—to jump up in the air and beat your legs changing positions and do it softly and with control. It's like being able to keep your eye on the ball in tennis and hit the stroke right."

By the time scout Verdy spotted Dan and offered him a scholarship, he was hooked. He joined the company in 1972, passing up a National Merit Scholarship to college. "He did not ask my advice," his father says. "It was his own sense of values." But Dan has never given up his Midwest whole-someness. "As a partner he is thoughtful and tender," says dancer Heather Watts. "He's sort of the Clark Kent of the City Ballet. There's just nothing bad you can say about him. Even his humor is clean-cut."

When Kyra finally joined Dan in the company, it was ho-hum at first sight. "I used to see Danny and Joe all the time in the A&P," she says. "They had armfuls of bananas for their health-food shakes. To be honest, I wasn't real attracted to him." "Well, ditto, honey," he says. "When I first met Kyra she was literally afraid to talk. She didn't think she sounded intelligent enough."

Their first real conversation occurred at the company Christmas party. After that he invited her out on what was, at 16, her first date. "We knew we liked each other," she remembers, "and we were each terrified of doing something wrong." After dinner and the movie Scenes From a Marriage, he dropped her off at her apartment, where she got her first kiss. "I had some background in this," she laughs. "There was a choreographer in San Francisco whose ballets were very earthy, so he taught me to kiss, I mean really kiss," she says. "But I never kissed boys offstage before Dan." After that, Heather Watts recalls, "Dan had goo-goo eyes whenever he was around Kyra. He never treated me like he treated her, and I knew him first!" The two were married in Saratoga, Calif. three years later.

Their one-bedroom apartment reflects their shared devotion to ballet. The walls are lined with pictures of themselves dancing (though the bathroom is given over to framed photographs of their four cats). Pressed for an example of something they do just for fun, Kyra gropes hard for an answer and then says, "Oh, yes, we're really into trees." "Are you kidding?" says Dan, and Kyra giggles nervously. "Well, we do go for walks in Central Park," she says. No matter: The fun in their work and marriage is plainly intertwined. As Kyra puts it, "When my feet are really swollen and red and I feel I just can't make it to the bed, he'll pick me up in his arms and carry me into the bedroom and pull my toes. How many other husbands would do that?"

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