ICYMI: On with the dance

“What a joy it is to dance and sing”

[Author’s note: This post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 8 December 2015.]

As genealogists, we tend to focus on the more remote past, rarely pausing to consider our parents’ or grandparents’ times in a rush to get back to 1850, or 1750, or sometime before that. Someday, of course, 1950 will seem as remote to our descendants as 1750 does to us, and it behooves us to focus some attention on twentieth century research before that century, like the ones before it, vanishes from shared (and contemporary) memory.

Ted Shawn

My mother aspired to be a dancer. In a long series of letters to her parents, she urged them to let her drop out of Briarcliff Junior College and move into Manhattan – my grandparents, perhaps understandably, thought the life of a Broadway gypsy an unhappy one for their only child. Still, they bent to her wishes enough to send her as an apprentice at Jacob’s Pillow[1] for the summer of 1952; it was there that she saw the festival’s founders dance, along with Frederic Franklin,[2] Myra Kinch,[3] and La Meri[4] – among many others.

Freddie Franklin

My mother’s photos from Jacob’s Pillow reside in a battered, oversized album whose pages have begun shedding their edges. Most are snapshots of her friends, lounging about between rehearsals and performances, but some show the visiting celebrities signing autographs and mugging for the camera.

She also preserved a complete set of programs for the festival, which help reconstruct the dates on which she saw the dancers in her album:

  • La Meri (27–28 June, 17–19 July, 29–30 July, 1–2 August, 29–30 August)
  • Myra Kinch (27–28 June, 17–19 July, 29–30 July, 1–2 August, 29–30 August)
  • Ted Shawn (27–28 June, 29–30 July, 1–2 August, 22–23 August)
  • Ralph McWilliams (27–28 June, 17–19 July, 29–30 July, 1–2 August, 29–30 August)[5]
  • Frederic Franklin (5–9 August)
  • Alexandra Danilova (5–9 August)[6]
  • Nicholas Orloff (5–9 August)[7]
  • Ruth St. Denis (29–30 August)[8]
My mother with some of her fellow apprentices

My mother graduated from Briarcliff in 1953, then missed a year of college recovering at home from illness; in 1954 she went on to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, no doubt chosen in part for its proximity to Manhattan. I think that, ultimately, her passion for dance proved fleeting, but her album preserves memories of a happy period in her life and some of the people she encountered while studying and performing.

This is just an example of the biographical content that can be mined from a long-ago summer in the Berkshires. A little digging, a little sifting, and something of an earlier life might be revealed.



[1] Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts, was founded in 1931 by Ted Shawn [Edwin Myers Shawn] (1891–1972) and Ruth St. Denis (1879–1968); they married in 1914.

[2] Frederic Franklin (1914–2013), who was still performing in the first decades of the 2000s.

[3] Myra Kinch (1904–1981), head of the Jacob’s Pillow modern dance program from 1948.

[4] La Meri [Russell Meriwether Hughes] (1898–1988), the dancer and choreographer, with whom Myra Kinch had studied. My mother had professional photos of both, La Meri’s signed to her with a long note.

[5] Ralph McWilliams (1926–1981), a dancer and stage manager with the American Ballet Theatre.

[6] Alexandra Danilova (1903–1997), a dancer with the Ballets Russes and then the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo; she was frequently partnered with Freddie Franklin.

[7] Nicholas Orloff (1914–2001) of the American Ballet Theatre.

[8] When she danced Ravel’s The Quest with her former husband.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

7 thoughts on “ICYMI: On with the dance

  1. Yes, too often we hurry over this. Perhaps not because of any rush to get back to earlier times but because we think we know the time well. But what a gift to future generations it would be to document thoroughly our grandparents, our parents-and ourselves.

  2. In answering some questions about my family from a new-found cousin, I realized how little I actually knew about my grandparent’s lives. And when I thought about my parents, I began to wonder about the things in between the things that children are aware of. Photos are a great “spark” for stories about the family, but unfortunately, in the distribution of artifacts, many went missing, so I have few photos of my family. Recently someone gave me a suggestion that I believe originated with FamilySearch.org. It is a list of 52 simple questions meant to spark weekly stories about oneself and one’s immediate family. Each question can be answered simply and literally, or one can allow it to expand into detailed and related stories. The very first question was “What is your full name? Explain why your parents gave you that name.” Oh, my, that led into a rambling story about the names in my family, who is named after whom (why so many of my family use their middle names!), nicknames, and a lot of reminiscenses about aunts and uncles and stories told young children. I am the oldest in my family now, and if I don’t write these things down, they will be lost. Now on to the next question in my list!

  3. Was Briarcliff always a Junior College or did it change to a college by 1963 or so when I worked at a mechanical engineering firm that was redesigning the air systems there?

  4. How incredibly lucky she was to see the great Ruth St. Denis and, of course, Ted Shawn. They are extensively covered in a chapter in my book about amazing New Jersey women born before 1900. I would give anything to be able to experience St. Denis live. Thanks for the article.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.