After dancing in New York ….

I spent two years in New York City, Victoria. Then came the second summer, in 1952, when I was home in Winona on vacation. The young man who was to become your grandfather and I met again after having been apart for those two years .. and the rest, as they say, in another history.

We were married in November and started out our life together in a St. Paul apartment for which the rent, at $90 a month, seemed a bit high …. but it had a sink in the kitchen!

I found a job back at Macalester College, in the personnel department this time. Modern dance classes were now under the physical education department; there were no “dance” performances. I realized I’d really hit the jackpot by being at Mac when Nancy Hauser was there: she opened a world I’d have otherwise never known.

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Mom with Macalester College President Turck

After a few months I heard that St. Catherine’s College — the “girls school” just across the street from our new apartment — was looking for a dance instructor. I applied, and after I was interviewed for the job I was sent to the office of the Mother Superior for a final chat. I wondered just how an authority of the Catholic Church might feel about a Protestant-reared woman as a teacher for her charges. I was ushered into the presence of this austere figure in her classic habit of long, black, flowing robes, and waited, fearing what might be harsh questions. But of course, this formidable-looking person turned out to be most gracious and understanding. I was hired.

Toward the end of the year we put on a musical comedy, written and composed by a truly talented senior girl. It turned out to be a great success. With that production, it seemed to me, my dance life had made full circle, for I reached back to my experience with Mr. Murphy’s classes in Winona to choreograph a soft-shoe number for two actors playing old vaudeville performers. At each of the three shows, the number received so much applause that the dancers had to give the audience immediate encores.

Little did the dear nuns, or my students, know that late that spring their dance instructor had become pregnant: so you could say that your mother attended dance classes earlier than most. No wonder she and her daughter have always enjoyed moving to a musical beat!

When we see you dance now, Victoria, our memories flash back a generation and we recall your mother at your age in Caracas, reacting to music the same way you do. IMG_7474

And we remember how, a few years later, she and your Aunt Susie would put on my old cotton leotards, hitched up with scarves, and leap and swirl around our living rooms: from Caracas to Milan to Bologna to Rome. Then, in Bogota, we found a ballet school near our house in Teusaquillo for more organized movement study.

After we moved back to the USA — to Rockville, Maryland — your mother took classes at a good modern dance school, and Aunt Susie’s gang tried a ballet school for a short spell. [Nancy’s daughter, Jane Kelly adds: Ethel Butler, a Graham dancer, was my first introduction to improvisation: I remember feeling such joy in the movement! Ethel Butler obituary.]IMG_7702

Toward the end of our time in Rockville, your mother spotted a dance audition posted at the Rockville Jewish Community Center, where she was doing some volunteer work on weekends, and she passed the audition, performing in a couple of pieces at the JCC a few months later. She continued taking dance classes when we moved to Madrid, taking the bus downtown by herself one evening a week to a studio in an old building right off the Jose Antonio. Your mom also was chosen to be choreographer in the high school production of Lil Abner that both girls went to at the Torrejon High School on the Air Force base outside Madrid.

It wasn’t until we moved back to Rome that Aunt Susie blossomed in a modern dance class. The duet she choreographed with a friend for a show at the Overseas School was stunningly well performed! It looked as if she had studied for years to reach that point.

Your mother’s path, meanwhile, led to serious modern dance study, following in my footsteps. First she attended a summer session in Colorado Springs, studying with Hanya Holm just like I did. Then, it was on to Minneapolis to study with my college dance teacher Nancy Hauser.

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Nancy Hauser Apprentice Group (Kelly Amerson in blue on the right)

What a delightful, creative, disciplined dancer she was turning out to be! She moved to NYC to study with one of Don Redlich’s dance company members, Irene Feigenheimer, and we saw her in a performance at the Dance Theater Workshop with two of Don’s other dancers, Billy Siegenfeld and Jenny Donohue.  Your mom was the standout figure in the group. It was such a thrill to see that the raw talent we’d observed in our three year-old had been shaped by dedication into a captivating dancer.

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Dad (Bob Amerson) and Mom (Nancy Amerson) with me after the 1978 performance at Dance Theater Workshop

And there you have it: some of the highlights of my (of our!) involvement in the world of dance. As I have written these words, many details have come to the surface that had all but been forgotten in the intervening 40-plus years. So, I am indebted to you, Victoria, for inspiring me to do some remembering.

Sometime, when you are a little older, it may be appropriate for you to share some of this story about Grandma with Sam and Connor. I love you all!

Grandma

Cape Cod, Massachusetts

February 20, 1996

 

Small Town Girl Moves to NYC: third installment of Nancy Robb (my mother)’s memoir “Dancing Grandma”

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.

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Nik and Hanya at Colorado College, photo in “Dancing Grandma”

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.

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Clipping in “Dancing Grandma,” a less fearsome Hanya as I remember her from my Colorado College summer in’ 74

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. MCNY-original 2The 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, th-1 2Germany’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. YW-NYC-OLD-233x300 2

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 Bellamy220px-Ralph_Bellamy_still 2, 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:

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Alice in Wonderland, sans fish! Bearnstowjournal.org

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.

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From the left: Marty Howe, Murray Lewis, Mom bearnsBearnstowjournal.org

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Mom, seated front row, second from right. Nik with drum, Murray standing right rear. Bearnstowjournal.org

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.

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Clipping from “Dancing Grandma”

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!

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Nik, left corner. Mom, seen through Murray Lewis’ legs!

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.