ICYMI: On with the dance

“What a joy it is to dance and sing”

[Author's note: This post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 8 December 2015.]

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.



[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.

Scott C. Steward

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.View all posts by Scott C. Steward