In the summer of 1950 I returned to Colorado, where I discovered other Winona dancers and saw how much teaching had improved my dancing, and joined Nik’s company in New York with just $250 in my pocket.
Winona Produced Three Modern Dancers
As the end of my first teaching year approached, I once again had the good news from Colorado College that scholarship aid had been awarded me toward a second summer studying with Hanya Holm and Alwin (Nik) Nikolais.
Much to my surprise, two others from Winona had enrolled. One was Debbie Choate, a classmate of mine at Madison Grade School. Debbie’s father had inherited ownership in the town’s major department store Choate’s so her family (in small town terms) represented wealth and priviledge. We’d been best of friends off-and-on until Debbie changed schools and we lost contact. Debbie had gone to Mills College in California, where dance became her major. I found the grown-up Debbie great fun as well as an admirable dancer.
The other surprise student was Don Redlich, a “kid” one year behind me in school. He was one of our better divers on the varsity swim team and the lead cheerleader, as well as a good ballroom dancer. Don had gone to Winona State and then to the University of Wisconsin. With three of us arriving from the same small town there was great interest among the others as to who in Winona was generating this enthusiasm for modern dance. We could only say that it was sheer coincidence: the only dance classes the three of us had taken were tap and ballroom. The “why” remained a puzzle for us all.
Teaching Had Improved My Dancing
My year of teaching had taught me how to analyze movement in order to translate what I expected my students to do. I recognized that the ability to dissect movement into its component parts was essential to technical proficiency. This introspection now permitted me to see progress in what I was capable of achieving.
Hanya Brooked No Competition
Nik worked with a small group of us, all women, choreographing a lovely, lyrical Gershwin piece that we thought would be part of the final performance that summer.
Hard-eyed Hanya came by to watch a run-through. She cut us down with minimal words: “Well, if that is something you want yourselves identified with … if that is up to YOUR standards.” Needless to say, the piece was not performed. At that moment, and though she had never come right out and said so, we recognized that the group’s final performance was to feature only Hanya’s work. She brooked no competition.
At the end of the summer, Nik announced that I would be arriving in New York City in time for the opening events for the Henry Street Playhouse as part of Nik’s Henry Street Dance Company.
Henry Street Playhouse Dance Company
With the flood of immigrants at the turn of the century, “settlement houses” came into being to provide social services and a place for the community to gather in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The whole concept was very new and very successful in helping newcomers. The Henry Street Settlement House (and a small theater a block away on Grand Avenue) provided what the immigrant population needed and, as they became absorbed into the city, the need for such a meetingplace gradually ended. The theater went unused until Nik and another theater person decided to start a school of dance and drama.
Nik, trained as a musician, played the piano music to accompany silent movies. After the war, he moved to New York City and began accompanying and taking modern dance classes with Hanya Holm, who had arrived in NYC to open a school of dance based on the theories developed by Mary Wigman, Germany’s lead modern dancer. It wasn’t long before Hanya realized that Nik was a superb teacher; he became her main assistant. But Hanya always treated her staff (and her own son) as if they were her inferiors, her servants. No one ever told me what, exactly, caused the split between Hanya and Nik, but the outcome was that he started the Henry Street Playhouse dance school. The company grew from neighborhood kids who came up through classes, plus a couple of us newcomers. Three of the most accomplished dancers, Murray Lewis, Gladys Bailin and Martha (Marty) Howe, had been in Colorado, so I had friends right off. In fact, Marty had invited me to room with her.
Where to Sleep and Where to Work
By the time you read this, Victoria, you will be so familiar with NYC that it will be difficult for you to comprehend just what an overwhelming sensation it was for me to arrive at Penn Station after a day and a half trainride from the Midwest. The noise, crowds, dirt … and yet, the excitement of so many impressions coming all at once. I had ridden out with my brother Jimmy, who was going to take graduate classes at Columbia University. Marty was away for a few weeks, so Jimmy dropped me off at the YWCA residence on Lexington Avenue.
It was a bit lonely at first to be in such a big city without knowing anyone, so I started exploring and learning the joys of walking around NYC on my own. I loved it, and it turned out to be good training for later years when I did the same in Rome, Madrid, Milan and Bologna. At that time in New York, there were no warnings about “being careful,” and I was never bothered by unasked-for attention.
One big project loomed, and that was to find a job. My bank account regisered about $250. I had a scholarship to Nik’s dance school, but I would not be receiving a salary for being in the company. After too much pavement-pounding and days of certainty that I would never be hired, I found the perfect job as the receptionist at an office where salesmen came in to see the buyers of a major five-and-ten chain. The location, between 10th and 11th on lower Fifth Avenue, was conveniently half-way to Henry Street, and my salary of $80/month was enough to pay my share of the rent and groceries.
When Marty came back from her vacation back home in Vermont, I moved into the rather odd apartment: actually, it was just one big room that had once been the elegant library in a large mansion. The walls were still lined with gorgeous walnut bookshelves, with the long windows lined with dusty, heavy deep-red velvet drapes. The furniture was covered in dark, worn plush: we made up the built-in, hard daybeds each night. The kitchen was a small closet off the bathroom; we washed dishes in the bathroom sink. I thought it was very strange — and PERFECT!
Marty had been sharing the room with the daughter of Ralph Bellamy, a well-known movie star of our era. Apparently she thought him a terrible man, and his roster of ex-wives proved that she was probably right. This “Bellamy girl” moved upstairs to live alone in a proper apartment. With money from daddy? I, of course, had never known anyone like these people, but tried to act as if it all didn’t just amaze
Marty was my window on a new life; she took everything in stride. She had just graduated from Barnard College and seemed ready to edicate me about “her” New York. Her friends lived in equally odd places: with the bathtub in the kitchen, or huge, bare factory lofts. Once we rode the subway hanging onto the straps and talking with the daughter of ex-mayor LaGuardia; they had been classmates somewhere, and she was adopted, Marty said. I caught myself sometimes playing “the green Midwestern girl” a bit thickly. It amused me to see how it took those provincial New Yorkers by surprise: I could be just as unusual as they were, I decided!
A few months later, Marty found us a larger, three-bedroom apartment on Broadway and 108th: over Cannon’s Bar, as we told our friends. We decided to advertise for roommates: the ad resulted in a number of calls from strange men who seemed to me more amusing than scary, and several women. We selected Janet Lewis, who warked as a secretary at Columbia University, and Ceci Oppenheimer, also a secretary somewhere, and Marty and I shared the third bedroom. We spent little time together, that way we got along fine. We nearly lost the apartment when Marty found out that the landlady was charging us nearly twice the legal rate for the rent-controlled apartment: Marty was gung-ho to head for the courtroom, but we concluded that $125 divided by four was a monthly figure we each could handle.
The Playhouse Dance Company
Four days a week, I took the subway down to Henry Street right after work to take class from 5:30 to 7:30. After we broke for our bag suppers, the company rehearsed until 10:30, then two subway changes to get back up to 110th Street. Those were long days. We also had class all Saturday afternoons, other than the days we did shows for the neighborhood kids; tickets cost a dime. Nik created a dance based on Alice in Wonderland characters:
my character was a fish, which required me to dance in a tall papier-maché cone! Other children’s tales, and a series of dances using props, were added to our shows. A photographer came from Family Circle, and we had a two-page layout in the magazine.
Thursdays were free, so Marty and I signed up for a choreography class given by Louis Horst. Louis had been Martha Graham’s accompanist, mentor, and — for a time — lover. We all sat at his feet in adoration, although I honestly could never follow what in the heck he was trying to teach us.
At Christmas, I stopped at his apartment in the Village with a box of home-made Christmas cookies. This gesture seemed to absolutely delight him and resulted in him taking Marty and me out for lunch. All I remember of that event is his advice not to get married until we had made a name for ourselves in dance!
We never told Nik that we were taking classes away from Henry Street. At the time, heads of dance groups were terribly possessive of THEIR people, and they expected complete loyalty. Nowadays, dance students hop from teacher to teacher, paying by the class and absorbing various techniques. We knew no one who would do that, as the results would seem a mish-mash of styles.
Most of our performing was done at places like the Metropolitan Museum, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Art, universities, public schools, and settlement houses. Once in a while, the sponsoring organization would give us a small payment, which we used to buy costume fabric in the wholesale district. Someone in the company had a friend who was an apprentice for a fashion designer: she did the designing and cutting. We all, men included, sewed our own costumes; fortunately, we never came unstitched on stage!
Nik’s strong musical background was directed toward creating electronic sounds, a whole new concept, and Ruth Gravert, our stage manager, worked out creative lighting. It was ground-breaking stuff, but not much money: as company treasurer, I was responsible for establishing our account in the Bowery Bank, and our balance was $211 when I left in 1952. And why did I leave? And where did I go? Ah, that’s for the next part of the story.
I hope, Victoria, that you will see the video made of Nik’s work at the Alwin Nikolais Kennedy Center Honors.
8 thoughts on “Small Town Girl Moves to NYC: third installment of Nancy Robb (my mother)’s memoir “Dancing Grandma””
Thank you for sharing. So enjoy reading about modern dance history and the pioneers! While I never studied with Hanya or Nik I was very familiar with their work. Did dance in a piece of Don Redlick as a teenager. And studied with Louis Horst. Look forward to reading more from your Mom’s Memoir.
Hi, JoAnne. I’m so glad we have connected, and thanks for your note. I myself followed in Mom’s footsteps in the mid-70’s, dancing in Colorado Springs, Minneapolis (with Nancy Hauser) and New York City (with various studios). Taught after stopping performing and found my way to teaching water exercise with seniors, of which I am now too. I am intrigued by your blog and the videos, shared the one with the women from the shelter, powerful stuff. Let’s keep watching and sharing. Kelly
I’m delighted that we have connected too and thank you so much for sharing our film “Through the Door”. How long were you in NYC? I was there in the early 60’s and then again from 83 to 2004. I look forward to reading more of your blog. Do you have a place where I can subscribe to receive a note when you post?? By the way I found you by #moderndance on Twitter. I do that every now and then to see what comes up. Love that you are doing water exercises with seniors. JoAnne
For some reason, I was not able to comment on this post, but I did pass it on to several people I know who are connected with music or dance or theatre in the city now. I think they will all be intrigued. Your mother certainly had one amazing life! Nancy Oh, by the way, I won’t be back in class until January. I discovered that my insurance has given me free access to the JCC’s classes. I decided to save some money until the end of the year (when I am switching plans) and use those. But I will keep reading. >
Good to hear you’re still moving (and saving $), and thanks for passing Mom’s story along! Hope our paths continue to cross, at least electronically. ~ Kelly
I am fascinated by your blog, because I am researching Kip Kiernan, (for a screenplay) who was also a student of Hanya Holm from 1941-44. He married another student/performer, Robin Winifred Gregory who performed at the Henry Street Settlement Playhouse under Nik in 1954. If you have any information about Robin (or her children, or Kip Kiernan, who sadly passed away in 1944) I would be most grateful. Perhaps you know of other people who studied there at this time that are still alive? Studying dance in the 1940’s and 50’s in New York City was an exciting time! I am sure that your mom knew Robin! Thanks so much, Judy