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.


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.


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!

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

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

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.


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.




The Macalester College Dancer

[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!


Nancy Hauser with Jamie Lawrence, a star with the Ice Capades


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 IMG_7503 3and 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!

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N. Robb in grey doing a Graham contraction






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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.


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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. IMG_7505I 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.


Alwin “Nik” Nikolais and Hanya Holm, faculty at Colorado College Summer Dance Program, 1949

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?