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

 

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!

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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.

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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?