Nina Popova spent her life in motion. As an infant, she fled the Bolsheviks. As a teen, she fled the Nazis. As an adult, she established herself as a world-class dancer, performing on Broadway, television and tours around the globe.
Even in her 90s, she could be seen walking through Sea Cliff with the grace of someone decades younger until a second broken hip forced her to move to a rehabilitation clinic in Florida two years ago. This summer, Covid-19 broke out in her residence, taking her life on Aug. 7. She was 97.
Popova was born in Novorossiysk, Russia to Paul Popoff and Natalie Yacovleff on Oct. 20, 1922. As the Bolshevik Revolution initiated the formation of the Soviet Union two months after she was born, the family joined thousands of Russian refugees as they fled to Paris. Popoff, a hydroelectric engineer in Russia, became a taxi driver and Yacovleff worked as a seamstress.
Her parents enrolled Popova in a ballet school at a young age and it quickly became apparent that she was a prodigy. By her early teens, she was performing throughout Europe in several ballet and opera projects.
Perhaps Popova’s most life-changing opportunity came in the late 1930s when she joined the Ballet Russe, with which she left Europe to perform in Australia, just as the Nazi occupation of France loomed on the horizon. The tour took her from Australia to Cuba, and along the way, she met fellow dancer Nicholas Orloff, with whom she started a relationship.
While in Cuba, Popova and Orloff attracted the attention of New York’s American Ballet Theater. The two moved to Manhattan to perform in the theater and were married in 1939. They had their son, Alex Orloff, in 1945, although they divorced in 1950.
Popova’s career expanded in the following years, making appearances on Broadway and television along with her work with the Ballet Theater. She appeared regularly on “Your Show of Shows,” where she worked with the likes of Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Sid Caesar.
On a ballet tour in Mexico City in 1957, Popova met Luis Sanchez Arriola, an arts journalist writing for the El Día newspaper. After the tour, she returned to Mexico City to marry Arriola, and the two had a daughter, Irene Arriola, a year later. Their marriage ended shortly after, although they remained close friends for the rest of their lives.
Arriola said her relationship with her mother centered heavily around the arts. Although Popova never had a formal education, Arriola said she was one of the smartest self-taught people she knew. She said her mother had a voracious appetite for music, the arts and history, something which shone through in their many trips to museums together.
“My childhood was certainly atypical but far more interesting,” Arriola said. “We never baked a single cookie together but I don’t think many children had such exposure to the arts from 3 or 4.”
In 1954, Popova began teaching as the supervisor of ballet at the School of Performing Arts in the Bronx. Arriola said her mother was a demanding teacher whose dedication to dance made her unwilling to coddle her students. If a student was not giving it their all or if Popova felt they were not cut out for dance, she would tell them.
Popova was given the opportunity to become the director of the Houston Ballet in 1967. Although she took the job, Orloff said she was not thrilled with the shift in culture from New York to Texas. She returned to New York in 1975 and began teaching at the Neubert Ballet Institute at Carnegie Recital Hall, during which time she settled in Sea Cliff. She retired from teaching when she was 77.
Resident Phil Como said he got to know Popova well when he volunteered as a driver for the Sea Cliff Senior Action Committee. He said he was struck by the amount of life she had in her well into her 90s and that she was an engaging, delightful woman to talk to.
Former Sea Cliff Mayor Claudia Moyne organized transport for seniors, including Popova, at the time. She said she was always amazed by her physical fitness, energy and proficiency as a conversationalist.
Orloff said his mother’s fitness came into play the first time she broke her hip in 2009, from which she bounced back perfectly, much to the astonishment of her doctors. However, she broke her other hip in January, 2018, forcing her to rehabilitate in the Glengariff Rehabilitation and Healthcare Centre in Glen Cove. That March, Arriola flew her down to rehab in Florida near Arriola’s home.
Arriola said her mother hated physical therapy, until they found something that suited her. She was given the opportunity to rehab using ballet, Arriola said, and once she was at the barre, she seemed right at home.
Even at 95 years old and recovering from a second broken hip, Popova continued to astound.
“To me, she knew all of the things that were important in life,” Arriola said. “To me, without the arts, we are a colorless world, so she lived in living color.”