Once World’s Most Famous Child Ballerina, Stephanie Selby Dies At 56 in Cody

in Wyoming Obituary/News

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming is filled with amazing stories — when you walk down the street in one of the state’s many small towns, there’s no telling whose story you might learn.

In Cody, one such story was Stephanie Selby’s. Selby passed away in Cody on Feb. 3 at just 56 years old. 

Most people who knew Selby met her because of her work in the outdoors — she loved horses, she was a hunting camp cook, horse wrangler and guide, and her best friend was her Australian sheep dog Pete. She was deeply committed to her Christian faith, and was a dedicated member of her church in Cody.

What only her closest friends and family may have known, however, was that Selby was once the most famous child ballerina in the world.

In 1976, Selby was the subject of a book by photographer Jill Krementz which followed the 10-year-old School of American Ballet student in her day-to-day life as she prepared for and starred in the role of Clara in New York City Ballet’s “Nutcracker.” 

The book, “A Very Young Dancer,” was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1976. 

In a New York Times feature from 2011 titled “Storybook Ballerina’s True Life Adventure,” the writer noted that the book inspired many young aspiring ballerinas and rocketed young Stephanie, who spent her childhood summers at her family’s Cody-area ranch, to fame.  

Her time in the spotlight led to experiences very few young people could claim — she was featured in a “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” Christmas special, was interviewed on the “Today” show and made other TV appearances.

But she left that life behind, according to one of her friends in Cody, Lisa Courtney.

“What she really loved was her life away from all of that,” said Courtney, who met Selby more than 20 years ago. “What she really embraced and loved was her life here as a guide and an outdoorsman, and horsewoman. She loved her dog. She loved the Lord.”

Selby graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where she majored in religion, according to her obituary. For a time she lived and worked in Boston for charitable organizations, helping people in crisis. 

But her Wyoming roots called her home, said Courtney, who was introduced to Selby through their mothers.

“Stephanie and I just kind of connected through my mom,” Courtney said. 

Courtney’s mother was friends with Stephanie’s mother, Linn Selby.

“And then we just became good friends over the years,” Courtney said.

As an adult, Courtney said Selby was intensely private. She spent much of her life in Cody immersed in the outdoors.

“She loved to take city people, you know, like New York City people, and show them the wonders of this country,” Courtney said. “And because she was passionate about this, she was outside all the time. She was fishing, hiking, horseback riding, dancing in the woods.”

Selby stayed connected to her New York City roots, but Courtney pointed out that she always came back to Cody.

“She loved New York City, but it couldn’t contain her,” she said. “It just couldn’t contain everything that she was — so she was here sometimes, then she wanted to go back there. But she would never stay long. She always came back here.”

What her friends in Cody will remember most isn’t the childhood dancer who was handpicked by George Balanchine himself to play the coveted role of “Clara” for the New York City Ballet — not the 10-year-old who won the hearts of young girls who dreamed of becoming ballerinas. Courtney said the woman who danced in the outdoors, the free spirit who loved her horses and her animals, and who loved intensely is the woman who will be missed.

“She was intensely generous with her love,” she said. “And she was delicate and extremely intelligent and incredibly talented.”

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