On with the dance

“What a joy it is to dance and sing”

As genealogists, we tend to focus on the more remote past, rarely pausing to consider our parents’ or grandparents’ times in a rush to get back to 1850, or 1750, or sometime before that. Someday, of course, 1950 will seem as remote to our descendants as 1750 does to us, and it behooves us to focus some attention on twentieth century research before that century, like the ones before it, vanishes from shared (and contemporary) memory.

Ted Shawn

My mother aspired to be a dancer. In a long series of letters to her parents, she urged them to let her drop out of Briarcliff Junior College and move into Manhattan – my grandparents, perhaps understandably, thought the life of a Broadway gypsy an unhappy one for their only child. Still, they bent to her wishes enough to send her as an apprentice at Jacob’s Pillow[1] for the summer of 1952; it was there that she saw the festival’s founders dance, along with Frederic Franklin,[2] Myra Kinch,[3] and La Meri[4] – among many others.

 

 

 

Freddie Franklin

My mother’s photos from Jacob’s Pillow reside in a battered, oversized album whose pages have begun shedding their edges. Most are snapshots of her friends, lounging about between rehearsals and performances, but some show the visiting celebrities signing autographs and mugging for the camera.

She also preserved a complete set of programs for the festival, which help reconstruct the dates on which she saw the dancers in her album:

 

 

  • La Meri (27–28 June, 17–19 July, 29–30 July, 1–2 August, 29–30 August)
  • Myra Kinch (27–28 June, 17–19 July, 29–30 July, 1–2 August, 29–30 August)
  • Ted Shawn (27–28 June, 29–30 July, 1–2 August, 22–23 August)
  • Ralph McWilliams (27–28 June, 17–19 July, 29–30 July, 1–2 August, 29–30 August)[5]
  • Frederic Franklin (5–9 August)
  • Alexandra Danilova (5–9 August)[6]
  • Nicholas Orloff (5–9 August)[7]
  • Ruth St. Denis (29–30 August)[8]
My mother with some of her fellow apprentices

My mother graduated from Briarcliff in 1953, then missed a year of college recovering at home from illness; in 1954 she went on to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, no doubt chosen in part for its proximity to Manhattan. I think that, ultimately, her passion for dance proved fleeting, but her album preserves memories of a happy period in her life and some of the people she encountered while studying and performing.

This is just an example of the biographical content that can be mined from a long-ago summer in the Berkshires. A little digging, a little sifting, and something of an earlier life might be revealed.

 

Notes

[1] Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts, was founded in 1931 by Ted Shawn [Edwin Myers Shawn] (1891–1972) and Ruth St. Denis (1879–1968); they married in 1914.

[2] Frederic Franklin (1914–2013), who was still performing in the first decades of the 2000s.

[3] Myra Kinch (1904–1981), head of the Jacob’s Pillow modern dance program from 1948.

[4] La Meri [Russell Meriwether Hughes] (1898–1988), the dancer and choreographer, with whom Myra Kinch had studied. My mother had professional photos of both, La Meri’s signed to her with a long note.

[5] Ralph McWilliams (1926–1981), a dancer and stage manager with the American Ballet Theatre.

[6] Alexandra Danilova (1903–1997), a dancer with the Ballets Russes and then the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo; she was frequently partnered with Freddie Franklin.

[7] Nicholas Orloff (1914–2001) of the American Ballet Theatre.

[8] When she danced Ravel’s The Quest with her former husband.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward has been NEHGS’ Editor-in-Chief since 2013. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

8 thoughts on “On with the dance

  1. Scott, what a lovely story – and how nice to see bright-faced Freddie Franklin. My cousin Roberta Laune danced with him in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo; she was a protege of Alexandra Danilova, to whose notice she was brought by her teacher Bronislava Nijinska. Those were the days.

  2. And, according to her, Mom went on to dance with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet while a student at Sarah Lawrence. I wonder if we can confirm that?
    Thanks so much for this, Scott. I’ll try to find my copies of Jacob’s Pillow snaps. They are wonderful!

  3. At the age of 13, I studied with Carol Lynn at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore (1949-1950)! My first professional ballet performance was the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo with Alexandra Danilova in Gaite Parisienne as the Glove Seller. I had autographs of both Danilova and Frederick Franklin! I wanted to be a dancer then but life intervened! Was so happy to hear more about Jacob’s Pillow, where Carol Lynn taught with Ted and Ruth!

    1. Thanks, Geraldine! Since I wrote this, my sister found more photos of our mother at Jacob’s Pillow, some of them (I think) with Alexandra Danilova. By the way, my mother was Barbara Bell from Baltimore — perhaps you encountered her at some point?!

  4. Lovely story… I studied at Jacobʻs Pillow the summer of 1972… a wonderful experience… did not have a professional career as a performance dancer, but taught for many years and Iʻm still dancing… traditional hula! Had my first exposure to that at Jacobʻs Pillow… been dancing hula for 29 years…

    1. Almost forgot… I literally ran into Dame Margot Fonteyn in a back hallway while I was rushing to a class… what an unbelievable experience to see her dance…

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