[My mother, Nancy Amerson, wrote Dancing Grandma for our daughter in 1996, which began with Dancing on the Mississippi to Fats Domino]
In 1945, I graduated from Winona High and went to Macalester College in St. Paul (your Aunt Susie and Uncle Michael went there too, and, as you’ll see, your Papa.) I signed up for modern dance to fill a gym credit: I had taken one modern dance class at the Winona YWCA (which is where we had dances and swam and where your Mom had fun when she visited Winona on Home Leave) and that teacher thought I must have studied dance – but all I had was Aunt Didi’s examples and a lot of fun!
This was my first real experience with the ART of dance. Our teacher, Nancy Hauser, came out of the center of the modern dance world in New York City, where she had studied with Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Hanya Holm, and she helped us to experience dance as an artistic expression, not just a PE credit. From freshman year on, I was hooked! (And years later, your mother would become one of Nancy’s students as well, but that is a while different story.)
Nancy believed in performing and we did a lot of it. Papa saw me in a performance pretty early on and hung around the stage door hoping I’d come out … which I did, and he smiled, and here we are! Well, sort of.
At any rate, Papa became my college boyfriend. And here’s how I knew he was the real deal. Nancy, my teacher, had arranged for our modern dance class to be on television, live and prime time, on the most watched television station in the Twin Cities. Back then, television was so new that they were desperate for anything to fill the time. So, Papa went to one of the few places he knew that had a TV: O’Gara’s Bar, just down the street from Macalester. And he made them tune the television into the program at 7:00, and everyone in the bar watched a bunch of dancers do floor exercises for a half an hour. I don’t think there was even music, maybe just Nancy beating a drum while we flexed and stretched and so on. And, knowing Papa as you do, do you think anyone was allowed to talk? That’s when I knew I’d found someone pretty special!
I loved to dance, even the floor exercises where I could show off my flexible joints! I wonder if you’ll be able to do this with your legs as you continue to dance.
Our teacher, Nancy Hauser, left Macalester about the time I graduated, and the president of the college offered me her job, instructor of dance in the drama department, at the annual salary of $1,800. I had no other job prospect: my major was social studies with a minor in economics and education, so I was qualified to teach high school but not very motivated. I summoned up a lot of nerve and accepted the offer. You can imagine that, with just four years of study, I felt unprepared to teach others, especially people that were just a year or two younger than me (including a lovely young woman named Beth Bowman, who would one day marry my brother Jimmy!). I had a summer to get organized and luckily I’d been given a scholarship to study with Nancy Hauser’s teachers out at Colorado College.
The big-name teacher that summer was Hanya Holm, one of the pioneers of modern dance who was in big demand as a choreographer on Broadway. I must have more than held my own during those intense four weeks because Alwin Nikolais, one of Hanya’s instructors who everyone called Nik, asked me to join his company in New York City when I had completed my year of teaching at Macalester. I was going to the Big Apple!
But, first, I had to make it as Macalester’s instructor of dance. Had I learned enough to fit into Nancy Hauser’s shoes?