Dance to the Piper

A choreographer and dancer whose ballets in Oklahoma!, Bloomer Girl, Brigadoon, and allegro have brought a new quality to the American stage, AGNES DE MILLE had a long row to hoe before she could establish herself as a dancer and break through the callous resistance of Broadway. The granddaughter of Henry George, and the daughter of If illiani de Mille, the playwright, she would not accept her initial defeats in New York, and it was in the London theater of Marie Rambert that she first enjoyed sustained recognition before a critical British public. The art and the discipline of a choreographer came later, and again it was in a foreign company, the Ballet Russe, that she projected her first great ballet, Rodeo, dancing the lead in it at the Metropolitan on the opening night. This is the second of four installments from her warm, spirited book. Dance to the Piper.



SINCE Mother refused to let me take lessons, all I learned about dancing I learned through reading and looking at pictures. I cut out photographs of every dancer I could find and pasted them in a scrapbook.

Once Ruth St. Denis was invited lo the house to look me over. With gigantic sangfroid I performed one of her own dances for her. She paid me the serious compliment of growing exasperated, kicked off her shoes and sat on the carpet beside me, going through the entire routine twice correctly. She then left, recommending that I be trained at once, preferably in her own school. But it came to nothing. St. Denis and Shawn, however, grew to be devoted and close friends of my parents. Father repeatedly said that, although dancers, they were very intelligent people indeed. But he refused to attend a single performance.

Matters might have gone on this way for years if my sister’s arches hadn’t providentially fallen. She was taken to a great orthopedist who advised, of all things, ballet dancing. He advised it for her, not for me, but what one sister did in our family the other always shared. We went straight away to the Theodore Kosloff School of Imperial Russian Ballet.

Theodore Kosloff had been a member of the original Diaghilev Ballet Russe. He had an enchanting smile, crooked, childish, and slightly cruel. He was slender at the time, lithe, and thatched with a mop of soft waxy brown hair. He had been trained at the Moscow Imperial School and had appeared at the Maryinski. Thence he had gone to Paris with Diaghilev and danced in the initial seasons with Nijinsky and Karsavina. Although he played only minor bits in this company, he had a remembering eye, and the time he put in during these seasons paid off more than well in his subsequent choreography.

Gertrude Hoffman, an enterprising American, who saw the value of beating the Russians to New ^ ork with their own ballets, summoned him over. He came with his wife, Maria Baldina, and Fokinc’s best repertoire. For Hoffman he staged among of her things a peppery version of Scheherazade. There being no copyright for choreography, Fokine could raise no legal objections. After this success, Kosloff shrewdly decided to have his own company and acquired for this purpose two exquisite young dancers, Vera Fredova and Natacha Rambova. They toured in vaudeville throughout the country, reaching Los Angeles in due course, where they were seen by Uncle Cecil’s scouts and promptly hired.

Ivosloff agreed to take us as pupils, and out of courtesy to Uncle Cecil he took us free, without pay of any sort, for as long or as often as we wished to go to his school.

We went down for our audition on a summer morning. The studio was an enormous bare room with folding chairs pushed against the white walls for the mothers to sit on while they watched their daughters sweat. Across one end of the hall hung a large mirror. Around the other three sides stretched the traditional barre. I gave my audition in a bathing suit. Kosloff himself put me through the test. He did not say how talented I was or how naturally graceful. He said my knees were weak, my spine curved, that I was heavy for my age and had “no juice.” By this he meant, I came to learn, that my muscles were dry, stubborn, and unresiliCftt. lie said I was a bit old to start training; 1 was at the time fourteen. I looked at him in mild surprise. 1 hardly knew what emotion to give way to, the astonishment of hurt vanity or gratitude for professional help. We were sent off to buy blocked toe slippers, fitted right to the very ends of our toes, and to prepare proper practice dresses.


THE first lesson was a private one conducted by Miss Fredova. Miss fredova was born Winifred Edwards and had received her training in London from Anna Pavlova. She was as slim as a sapling and always wore white like a trained nurse. She parted her dark hair in the center and drew it to the nape of her neck in glossy wings, Russian style. She was shod in low-heeled sandals. She taught standing erect as a guardsman, and beat time with a long pole. First she picked up a watering can and sprinkled water on the floor in a sunny corner by the barre. This she explained was so that we should not slip. Then she placed our hands on the barre and showed us how to turn out our feet ninety degrees from their normal walking stance into first position. Then she told us to plier or bend our knees deeply, keeping our heels as long as possible on the floor. I naturally stuck out behind. I found the pole placed rigidly against my spine. I naturally pressed forward on my insteps. Her leg and knee planted against my foot curbed this tendency. “I can’t move,” I said, laughing with winning helplessness.

Don’t talk, she said. “Down-ee, two-ee, three-ee, four-ee. Down the heels, don’t rock on your feet.”

At the end of ten minutes the sweat stuck in beads on my forehead. “May I sit down?” I asked.

Aou must never sit during practice. It ruins the thigh muscles. If you sit down you may not continue with class.” I of course would have submitted to a beating with whips rather than stop. I was taking the first steps into the promised land. The path might be thorny but it led straight to Paradise. ” Down-ee, two-ee, three-ee, four-ee.

Auca. Give me ihis fourth position. Repeal the exercise.”

So she began every lesson. So 1 have begun every practice period since. It is part of the inviolable ritual of ballot dancing. Every ballet student that has ever trained in the classic technique in any part of the world begins just this way, never any other. They were dreary exercises and I was very bad at them but these were the exercises that built Taglioni’s leg. These repeated stretches and pulls gave Pavlova her magic foot and Legnani hers and kehessinska hers. This was the very secret of how to dance, the tradition handed down from teacher to pupil for three hundred years.

I, a complacent child, who had been flattered into believing I could do without what had gone before, now inherited the labor of centurics. I bent to the discipline. I learned to relax with my head between my knees when I fell sick or faint. I learned howto rest my insteps by lying on my back with my feet vertically up against the wall. I learned how to bind up mv toes so that they would not bleed through the satin shoes. But I never sat down. J learned the first and all-important dictate of ballet dancing — never to miss the daily practice, hell or high water, sickness or health, never to miss the barre practice; to miss meals, sleep, rehearsals even, but not the practice, not for one day ever under any circumstances, except on Sundays and during child birt h.

Pallet technique is arbitrary and very difficult. It never becomes easy; it becomes possible. The effort involved in making a dancer’s body is so long and relentless, in many instances so painful, the effort to maintain the technique so grueling, that unless a certain satisfaction is derived from the disciplining and punishing, the pace could not he maintained. Most dancers are to an extent masochists. “ What a good pain! What a profitable pain!” said Miss Fredova as; she stretched her insteps in her two strong hands. “I have practiced for three hours. I am exhausted, and I feel wonderful.”

My strongest impression of the Kosloff studio was, besides the sunlight on the floor and the white walls, the smell of sweat, the salty smell of clean sweat, the musty smell of old sweat on unwashed dresses, the smell of kitchen soap and sweat on the fresh dresses. Every dance studio smells of this — moist flesh, moist hair, hot glue in the shoes, hot socks and feet, and soap.

Paradoxically enough, ballet dancing is designed to give the impression of lightness and ease. Nothing in classic dancing should be convulsive or tormented. Derived from the seventeenth and eighteenth century court dances the style is kingly, a series of harmonious and balanced postures linked by serene movement. The style involves a total defiance of gravity, and because this must perforce be an illusion, the effect is achieved first by an enormous strengthening of the legs and feet to produce great resilient jumps, and second by a coordination of arms and head in a rhythm slower than the rhythm of the legs, which have no choice but to take the weight of the body when the body falls. But the slow relaxed movement of head and arms gives the illusion of sustained flight, gives the sense of effortless ease. The lungs may be bursting, the heart pounding in the throat, sweat springing from every pore, but hands must float in repose, the head stir gently as though swooning in delight. The diaphragm must be lifted to expand the chest fully, proudly: the abdomen pulled in flat. The knees must be taut and flat to give the extended leg every inch of length. The leg must be turned outward forty-five degrees in the hip socket so that the side of the knee and the long unbroken line of the leg are presented to view and never the lax, droopy line of a bent knee. The leg must look like a sword. The foot arches to prolong the line of extension. Ihe supporting foot turns out forty-live degrees to enhance the line of ihe support ing leg, to keep the hips oven, and to ensure the broadest possible base for the support and balancing of the body.

It should always be remembered that the court, and therefore the lirst, ballet dances were performed by expert swordsmen and derive much of their style from fencing positions. The discipline embrace’s the whole deportment. The lifted fool springs to attention the minute it leaves the floor. The supporting foot endures all; the instep must never give way even when the whole weight of the body drops and grinds on the single slim arch. The legs can be held in their turned position by the great muscles across the buttocks only by pulling the buttocks in flat. The spine should he steady, the expression of the face noble, the face of a king to whom all things arc possible. The eyebrows may not go up, the shoulders may not lift, the neck may not stiffen, nor the mouth open like a hooked fish.

The five classic positions and the basic arm postures and steps were named at the request of Louis XIV by his great ballet masler, Pecourt, Lully’s collaborator, codified, described, and fixed in the regimen of daily exercise which has become almost ceremonial with time. Since then the technique has expanded and diversified but the fundamental steps and nomenclature remain unchanged. The “ Hoyale” is still the faked beaten jump it was when Louis XIV, not as nimble in the legs as he would have liked to appear, failed to achieve a proper entrechat gnat re.


THE ideal ballet body is long-limbed with a small compact torso. This makes for beauty of line; the longer the arms and legs the more exciting the body line. My torso was long with unusually broad hips, my legs and arms abnormally short, my hands and feet broad and short. I was, besides, fat. What I did not know was that I was constructed lor endurance and that I developed through effort alone a capacity for outperforming far better technicians. Because 1 was built like a mustang, stocky, mettlesome, and sturdy, I became a good jumper, growing special compensating muscles up the I font oi my shins for the lack of a helpful heel. But the long, cool, serene classic line was forever denied me.

I was allowed one private lesson a week (forty-five minutes) and one class lesson (one hour). In between times I practiced at home alone, something no dancer, pupil or professional, ever does. One needs company to overcome the almost irresistible tendency to flag. I practiced in Mother s bathroom, where she had a little barre fitted for me. The floor was slippery and there was no mirror. And I hated to practice there. I flagellated myself into the daily grind. Mother 1 bought I was overworking and forbade me to practice more than forty-five minutes. When I showed signs of resisting, she persuaded Kosloff to order me not to exceed this limit. All tlie other children practiced one hour a day in the studio and had a daily class lesson besides.

Since 1 could not practice long, obviously I must practice harder. 1 strained and strained. Between the Monday lesson and the Thursday lesson, I developed and matured rigid bad habits. Every week 1 developed a new bad habit.

The plain truth is I was the worst pupil in ihe class. Having grown into adolescence feeling that I was remarkably gifted and destined to be great,

I now found I could not bold my own with any of the girls standing on the floor beside me. So I crept about at the rear of the group, found matters wrong with my shoes, with my knees, with mv hair, resorted to any device to get away Irom the dreadful exposure.

Furthermore, the Kosloff method of teaching rather accentuated my dilemma. The accent was placed on force and duration instead of harmony, lie was intent on disciplining the feet and legs, and paid almost no attention to the coordination ol arms and facial expression. The girls grew as vigorous as Cossacks, leaping prodigiously, whirling without cease, flailing and thrashing as they went and contorting their necks and faces in a hideous effort to show the master how altogether hell-bent for beaut v t hey were. The exercises he devised were little miracles of perverse difficulty, muscle-locking gut-busters, all of them, I have never since seen healt hy girls faint in class, but in KoslolT s class they went down quite regularly and were dragged of! with their heels bumping on the floor behind them. Kosloff barely stopped counting. He used to sit in a great armchair facing the room, stamping and roaring, whacking a cane in measure to the music. In the corner sat the man with the balalaika barely audible through the noise. All the girls adored the master and gladly fainted for him. It was Miss Fredova, however, who gave me my private lessons, quietly, patiently, kindly. KoslofT occasionally walked in, looked for a minute, said, “No juice, no juice. More plié. Do you know? More expression, more sowd,” grinned suddenly with Tartar glee, and lost interest. “Don’t be discouraged,” said the angel Fredova. “I wish, though, you could practice more regularly.”

Only once did I have a small bit of my share of success. On a single occasion Kosloff gave exercises in pantomime. He suddenly stopped the class and called me out from my position in the back of the room. I demonstrated the exercise to a hushed and watching group. I did, of course, the best I could, trembling a little. They applauded. Kosloff beamed on me. He told Uncle Cecil that I showed the finest talent for pantomime of any pupil he had ever taught. This remark was naturally not repeated to me until long after.

Ah but there was a glory in that room! Each day’s class was important and a little frightening. When the master praised a pupil we shivered with envy and excitement. When he roared and denounced we blanched. When he made jokes we laughed although we rarely understood what he was saying — it nearly always had to do with teasing some wretch. When he talked about expression and “sowl” I, for one, wept. When he talked about fame, galas, “applows,” and réclame, I slept poorly for nights after. We curtsied formally at the end of class. W’hen he talked of his triumphs with Diaghilev in Paris and how the pupils practice in Moscow with butter on the floor to make it harder, and how as a young man he could easily turn twenty pirouettes with a single push, we listened round-eyed, grabbing the chance to get our breaths before the next frantic series of jumps.


DANCING appeals more strongly to women than to men; among its practitioners the expert women far outnumber the expert men. The audiences are largely female. Pavlova’s effect on the women in her audience was to a recognized degree hypnotic.

The reasons for this are not hard to understand. Barring sport, which offers a minimal emotional outlet, it is the one physical performance possible to women that does not carry with it either moral responsibility or physical hazard. It constitutes a true recapturing of pagan freedom and childish play. It can be even a complete although unconscious substitute for physical love, and in the lives of the greatest dancers it usually assumes this function.

Consider for a moment how the body of a dancer attaches to itself the attributes of love. It becomes the center of attention; it is the symbol of all that is most beautiful and powerful in physical life. Before the great sensitized and impersonal mass which is her audience the woman appears at her absolute best, infinitely desirable. She is beloved. She is cherished. But never at any moment is she threatened. Not hing this great impersonal lover can do or feel will compromise her physically. Her privacy can never be usurped. Free as a nymph with no earthy spoiling of her fresh strengt h, she will possess and be possessed by the integrated audience, fused and informed by her beauty into cohesive sympathy. She need not wait nor attend; she herself controls these great unions. She is the motivating force. She acts. The very physical stresses, the strengthening and bracing and tautening of her back and leg, supply such a sense of driving power as to give her the illusion of male potency. The plunging leg, the arched, vital foot, the delicate mechanism of equilibrium and balancing with their attendant hypnotic reflection in the audience suspend her in a state of continuing power.

But she pays for this omnipotent duality dearly. The price is unflagging lifelong effort. She must abandon forever her natural female passivity. She is forced to relinquish her unique womanly power: her grasp of reality. She is rooted in air. The fruit of her womb is gestures. Dedicating her life to her own body, she sacrifices the reality of her children’s bodies and in effect that of her husband’s. Very few great dancers marry well. Literally and profoundly they wed their work.

There is-a furl her simple economic reason for this. Dancing is by all odds the worst paid of the arts. Except in those countries where ballet is endowed by the state and the performer can be assured of a reasonably secure life, marriage for either the man or the woman is impractical. The life besides is exhausting, and the exigencies of louring, rehearsing, and practicing make domesticity difficult. The dancers arc always at the end of their strength. It is obvious, then, that anyone who deliberately chooses this profession feels herself by nature segregated from normal living and aloof from the group pattern. Concert or ballet, dancing as opposed to Broadway or moving-picture dancing tends in this country to attract the misfits both male and female.

Very few women dancers are homosexuals. They become, rather, a kind of neuter and lead a skimpy and incomplete sexual life —nearly all the great ones develop physiological aberrations of some sort and few risk motherhood, which must, be understandable enough. Any healthy woman can bear children—dancers in fact much more easily than the rest — but the rearing of a child cuts into rehearsal time like nothing else I can mention.

I have written about women because from my own experience I know something of their psychological involvements. I know less about men. I suspect their motives in choosing dancing as a career to be quite different. But I do not know. Homosexuality was present but never prevalent in the European state-endowed theaters and in Broadway musical shows. Wherever, in short, it has been possible to have a dance career at once commercially successful and socially acceptable, men with the more usual inclinations toward family and security have functioned happily. There was nothing effeminate about the great hoofers of our theater and they would have been astonished at the suggestion. Let us hope that with the growth of opportunity and recognition of dancing in this country, more men will join the profession, as they would any other, without qualm or taint, and with hope lor solid rewards on which to build their lives.


ANYTHING can happen in adolescence. It is always a risky time. Ugly ducklings sometimes change into swans. The reverse is equally possible. The bestbrought-up child is taken over by powers as divorced from daily habits as carthquake. And the important point is that what happens now is definitive, physically speaking. Up to this moment there has been margin for correction. Up to this moment it didn t really matter what went on inside your mouth, on the front of your skull, or down the length of your skeleton. After sixteen, this is it — for life. The chances are good you won’t like it. I didn t.

I had been a pretty child. My nose was small and pert, my skin white. I was skinny, spider-legged, and quick. I found myself suddenly imprisoned in someone else’s body, heavy, deep-bosomed, largehipped. My skin went muddy and on my face there developed seemingly overnight a large hooked nose, my father’s nose. “Roman,’ my mother called it.

“Aristocratic,” the family said. hull ol character,” people have told me since. Rut it would fool no girl. It was ugly. And it was mine for life.

Yet Mother continued her losing battle to bring me up as a normal girl, and boys seemed indicated. She signed me up for the Junior Cotillion and forced me to go. I used to enter the cotillion room clad in a pink or flowered crepe de Chine dress made by her, a little sash tying my precocious torso in two like a sack, a frill at my neck and frills at my elbow, pink silk socks and sandals (all the other girls wore taffeta frocks and silver cloth slippers with pointed toes). My hair was arranged by Mother in a nest of curls and crowned by a laurel wreath. How I hated my hair! All the excitement of putting it up was canceled out by the visual result. Mother elected to arrange it before every party and reserved time in her day to do this while I sat before the glass sinking into deeper and deeper melancholy. My mouth grew sour with rage and disappointment.

I knew I would never look like the others. Then jabbing the final pin into place with last-ditch conviction anti remarking that I was uncooperative and ungrateful, she would kiss me and dispatch me to an evening of enchantment.

I always bobbed a curtsy when I met my partners. They used to break into sweats of embarrassment.

I was, by general consensus, a perfectly rotten dancer, pointing my toes and performing little variations on the basic shuffling that completely unnerved my doggedly pushing escort. I also snapped my head smartly on every turn as one does in pirouettes. Indeed I responded to every musical suggestion so enthusiastically and variously as to take the boy off guard and leave him with no plan, He generally suggested lemonade and talk.

I sat out alone as many as thirteen or fourteen dances in a row. I sat with that alert indifferent air of one who has too much on her mind of interest and charm to notice that she is bleeding to death at the heart. I held my head very high and turned it vigorously with an exaggerated interest in every single thing that was in no way connected with the stag line. I told myself with somber pride that when I was a great dancer with all the capitals of Europe at mv feet, they would be very surprised indeed to remember they had passed me up. Very surprised. I used to go outside and look at the night sky and the line of hills against the stars and tell myself that these boys and girls never in their lives could know the deep emotions I felt. The next day I always practiced like a maniac.

Still, I was not unhappy. On the contrary I got through adolescence without a pang. I postponed it. I lived in a gay, bustling, exciting household. There was never a minute when something entertaining or provocative was not going on. The house was always full of people — friends for tea, Mother’s Tuesday walking club, the frequent SingleTaxers, and various aides in her plans to alter the state constitution. Each community project in Hollywood drifted through our parlor — the Bowl, the Woman’s Club, the Studio Club, the Assistance League, I lospital Benefits, the Community Theater. Every out-of-luck artist and writer rang the bell to find Mother exactly what she was purported to be, gullible and kind. Our balls were hideous with the water colors of brokenhearted old men. Mother brought home every visiting lecturer of note to tea and a fire or tea and a garden. I passed it all by and went up to study or practice alone in her bathroom. She always caught me en route and begged me to stop, reminding me that I had practiced yesterday and might practice again tomorrow but that Rebecca West might never again in outlives return.

As I grew older it became increasingly difficult to follow a routine of work at home, and I felt I was not getting anywhere with dancing. I began to dread the lonely practice morbidly. I thought about it at school all day, and on the way home I used to long for something beyond my control that would interrupt or delay it, an accident even. By the time I got through high school, dancing meant exhaustion and little else.

Fat her sat,me down and told me in so many words that I had to give it my whole time or I must abandon it. Father was being quite honest. At this point, had I chosen dancing, he would have supported the decision. But the years of restraint had done their work. Gradually, I had grown disheartened. The dance studio seemed only the scene of endless unprogressing strain. To shut myself up with those dreary, hard-working girls away from the verve of Father’s company, the house and its parties, away from Mother’s activities, the friends, the conversations, meant a kind of death. There were no ballet companies in the United States at that time. The only opening lay in KosLoff’s moving-picture troupe or in his vaudeville tour. My spirit quailed.

One morning toward the end of summer I walked into Father’s bedroom while he was shaving. “Pop,”

I said, “I’ve decided to give up dancing and go to college.” He replied without looking away from the mirror, “I’m glad you have, my dear. I don’t think you would have been happy.”

The next week I entered the university.


COLLEGE opened a new life, or so I intended. The University of California at Los Angeles was only a mile from the house. Mother wouldn’t let me take the compulsory course in sex hygiene, but I was allowed to eat what I liked for lunch, and I lunched for one solid year off a hot dog and a bun, chocolate cake and a glass of milk — twenty cents. I also read the daily newspapers for the first time in my life, put my hair up, and used a light lipstick.

I were a large gray tricorne with a cockade and a gray cloak and pretended I was a young man out of Dumas’s Antoinette Romances attending the Sorbonne. I acted out the fantasy well into my junior year, except at those times when the actual presence of live men sitting in the class beside me excited me into forgetting.

I studied the way I danced — to the point of dropping. I worked. I did nothing but work. I’m told we had a fair football team. I never went to a game. There were dances. There were sorority teas.

I was not asked to a single rush party. I did not have one date that first year. My social life consisted of a tea party now and then with Dr. Lily Bess Campbell and other members of the English faculty or with Elizabeth Boynton, the librarian. But I learned three important things in college — to use a library, to memorize quickly and visually, to drop asleep at any time given a horizontal surface and fifteen minutes.

Sometime during the beginning of the sophomore year a revue was put on in the college auditorium for the benefit of student victims of a campus fire.

I volunteered and danced French bergerettes in the manner of Watteau and that was the first time in my life I stepped on a stage. The next day I was rushed by three sororities. I joined one which later became the Beta Xi chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta.

Occasionally I staged dances for the student rallies. I did a good number of Petrarch’s sonnets at one football rally when the men got their letters. I suspect the student body must have had pretty nearly enough of me. But this last performance had one happy aspect. I dressed the girls exactly like Botticelli nymphs with draperies split to the crotch and was forthwith summoned into the director’s office to explain why. Dr. Moore knew all about Botticelli; he was also acquainted with eighteenyear-old glands. I listened with profound respect but refused to alter a stitch.

In order to get back up on my numb points, I had started exercising again. But I was heavy. I was at the point of emotional and mental development where I should step out in creative work, the childish drudgery of mechanics behind me. More, my body, having reached full development and maturity, should all the long while have been building into a dancer’s body.

It is a question of the greatest importance to dancers today in this country whether they can have both technique and education. Or whether education as it is taught in the universities is beneficial to them. I am inclined to think it is not. If one is going to be a professional in the arts, one should start a professional apprenticeship at the age of thirteen or so. The painters of the Renaissance entered the masters’ studios very young. They ground paint . They stretched canvases. They cleaned brushes. They handled as a matter of course the implements of their craft from childhood on. They painted as other people learn to write, first details of flowers, then animals, then angels’ wings and lesser figures, and always with the example of the master at work beside them. By the time they tackled their first solo picture they knew what they were doing. And in the meanwhile in the workroom they had listened to the great artists and philosophers and civic leaders. They grew up educated men.

The Russians in their Imperial Ballet School worked out a similar scheme. Children were accepted into the school at the age of ten and became wards of the government. They were taught ballet and character dancing for hours every day, but they were also taught languages and history. And from their first year they performed in the Maryinski Theatre as pages or fairies, or whatever. They saw the greatest singers and dancers in Russia at work. They learned music by watching Tchaikovsky, Rimski-Korsakov, Borodin, at their jobs. They learned art history, style, color, architecture from Benois and Bakst. And when at seventeen they were graduated, they moved into a world where every cultural door was open to them and an endowed theater waited staffed with the best in the business.

What did paleontology matter to me who wanted to jump high? Or astronomy when I needed to understand the phrasing of music? And granted the exposure to learning outside of my restricted domain broadened and steadied me, what I needed above all things in the world was training in moving design, design in time-space, in the manipulation and staging of bodies, in choreography. And this was not taught anywhere at all in the world. Dancing is not taught as an art in any university. There it is still in the gymnasium. Where dancing is taught as an art, the halls are noisy and dirty and troops of ignorant driven children are put through their paces daily like animals by expert semiliterate trainers and rewarded with food at the proper intervals. And the milieu is cheap music and greedy, jealous mothers and loud gossip, and noise and weariness. And never, never a book or an objective idea. But the children learn to move. And the ones with great gifts pick up all they need to know, somehow, along the? way.

Sarah Lawrence and Bennington Colleges have made attempts to solve the problem, but while they do give the student a sense of style and composition, they do not train the girls early enough or long enough to build a professional technique. Their graduates in point of pure dancing — cannot compete with the sixteen-year-old athleticism produced by the professional studios. In all other colleges and universities, dancing is still in the gymnasium and is beneath professional consideration.

I was graduated cum laude and all I longed for was to dance the mazurka in Sylphides;and I knew I never could.

I turned my glazed eyes on the misty future. And suddenly the future was in my face.

The day after they had stood side by side watching me take my degree, Mother and Father told me thev wore going to be divorced.


I MAT summer Margaret and I made a desperate pilgrimage through Europe, dragged at the tail of Mother’s grief. The trip was so bleached by her anguish that I cannot recall any part of it without melancholy. No theaters. No restaurants. No dancing. Just evenings by the pension window, staring at the suicide wallpaper while Mother sat in her bedroom writing, writing endlessly home to Hollywood.

The summer was at length done, and on a brillianl September morning we steamed up the Hudson and 1 stared at New York busy with little smokes, the smokes that make the static-laden island seem accessible and lively with morning bustle. I had arrived to change the American theater.

Those were the days of speakeasy money on Broadway and speakeasy taste, of I he active casting couch, of dancers hired on the sheen of the stocking and the wink of their agent, of the sexy rhinestone, the Texas Gtuftsin holler, the zip, the boom, the guts, the speed, the hot-diggety-dirt. This was the profession of my choosing, this corrupt carnival.

And what were my qualifications?

I could speak meticulous English.

I could use a library.

I had never so much as bought a hat without my mother’s advice.

I had never been kissed.

I was stiff in the joints, overweight, and underpracticcd.

I had a poor complexion.

No taste in dress.

I had never hunted a single day s work.

I was a snob.

I knew what I thought was beautiful.

Had I foreseen what lay ahead of me I think I should not have had the courage to go on. I faced a theater which for sheer toughness and vulgarity had few counterparts in the history of the stage. Because I was a dancer I entered a branch of that theater which had almost no standing or opportunity. What dance companies existed were small, confined and dedicated to the personal exploitation of some star.

The Metropolitan Opera, our great lyric theater, in reality a national institution which should have housed the finest dancing as it housed the finest music, had in fact degraded dancing to a point it never sank to in any European community. The impresario, Gatti-Casazza, frankly despised ballet, and though, oddly enough, he married his chief ballerina, Rosina Galli, he used what influence he had to suppress all dancing. The last full ballet to be presented under the auspices of the Met was La Giara (1926), a bit of peasant nonsense with a nice score by Respighi. The ballets in the operas were cut as drastically as the music permitted and were a byword in the profession. No dancer would enter the corps de ballet of the Metropolitan unless every oiher avenue of opportunity was closed; and although our country had produced soloists and choreographers of world-changing power, our great lyric theater never once employed an American soloist of national importance, nor one single American choreographer of any caliber whatever. They did employ Balanchine for one season but hamstrung him with rehearsal restrictions. The condition begun under Gatti persisted until the advent of Rudolf Bing.

There were no ballots in musical shows. The line routines were set by Ned Wayburn, Seymour felix, or Albertina Raseti. There were ballets of sorts in moving-picture houses, sometimes performed in scenery, usually performed in front of jazz bands with diamanté music stands. No concert manager booked American dancers with the single exception of the Denishawn troupe. In all the United States there was just one critic paid by a daily newspaper to write on dancing and qualified tor the job, John Martin of the New York Times. The word “choreography” was not yet known.

Two days after arrival Mother found us an apartment. College had all but exhausted me.

The divorce sapped the rest of my strength. Father arrived in New York and Mother’s agony at his nearness grew acute; and although I understood Father’s point of view and the inevitability of separation and yearned in sympathy, I decided not to see my darling again and with great bitterness of heart told him so, cutting myself off not only from my chiefest source of fun and strength and stimulation but from whatever professional advice he might have given me. Mother, who, if anything, knew less of the world than I, undertook to go it alone.

I started out by seeing Father’s friends, Dan Frohman, Brander Matthews, Walter Hampden, Edgar Selwyn. With an unprecedented show of independence, I declined to have Mother accompany me. They looked me over carefully and, being gentlemen of the old school and friends of Father’s, said they were sure I had something to offer. For instance, had I thought of writing? Archie Selwyn, of a newer school and nobody’s friend, was more forthright. “You’re too fat,” he said, prodding me with a pudgy finger in the thigh. “There!” This was not. what I had come to expect from t he Dean of Lett ers and Science.


DOUGLASS MONTGOMERY, a young actor whom I had met while I was in college and who had become my unpaid coach, thought it would be a good idea if I gave a concert, so I started working on a program. It was difficult to discipline myself. I had no schedule to meet, no teacher, no performance date. I was to make up a new kind of dancing, Dug said.

I hired a rehearsal hall. I hired a pianist. When I was ready I called Dug in. He sat alone in the studio tilling back on a folding chair, smoking vigorously to quiet his embarrassment. “What is your costume?” I told him. “What are your lights and props?" I explained. “Tell me when the curtain goes up,” he said as the music started. These rehearsals nearly always occurred at midnight or later, of necessity, after Dug’s shows. They were held in the empty Steinway building with no one but the night elevator man to let us in and out.

All I know about acting I learned from Dug and from my lonely experimenting. He taught me that every gesture must have some explicit meaning, He taught me to know exactly where the imaginary partners stood, how tall they were, and what they were doing at every moment. It was an exercise of real discipline to establish the eye level of a sixfoot partner moving rapidly around the room who, of course, existed only in the direction of my own eyes. But this was only the beginning. Any character actress could do this. He forced me to establish mood with a posture.

The timing of pantomimic phrasing I found out for myself — how to attack with a real impulse, how to round the gesture on the musical line, howto make the point on the last down-beat. Timing comedy I seemed to know about always. The main thing was never to hurry, not to waste one second, but never to hurry. Let the music race.

I aimed to do character studies where the dancing was a natural incident in the episode and a revelation of personality, using dance like costuming. The crux of the matter was the acted story. Since I couldn’t dance very well and acted naturally, this seemed the course to follow. I had as helps twenty square feet of bare space, lighting, one costume, one piano, a provocative title, and choice of the world’s music. I allowed myself eight bars after the curtain was up to establish who I was, when I lived, where I was at the moment, and how I fell. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was giving myself a stringent training in stage mechanics. I learned not to rely on scenery, quantities of people, or lush orchestration. I learned whal every true theater craftsman must know: that the actor and the gesture (or the word or the melodic line) talk. The rest is millinery.

My pieces were not properly dances al all. They were realistic character sketches, dramatic rather than choreographic in form. What dancing there was derived from authentic folk or old-fashioned theatrical steps which I used as decoration and accouterment, exactly like costumes, or lights, or music. For music I used bits of whatever seemed suitable, pasted together like an old moving-picture score. I avoided masterworks as having intrinsically too strong a form and atmosphere and because I had some decent compunction about scissoring up Chopin or Schumann.

My first group consisted of two Degas studies, a student, and a performer, an eighteenth-century French courtier, an Elizabethan girl watching a parade, a forty-niner, and two romantic ballet waltzes quickly discarded. The next year’s batch was to comprise an Irish reel, a Schuhplatlltanz to Beethoven, a girl at a Broadway audition, a Civil War variety entertainer complete wilh musket and 38-star flag, and an Arabian Outled Sail. If the range seems eclectic, the point of view was native. I was meticulous as to exact reproduction of style, but the woman inside the trappings was what interested me, and that girl remained, of course, always recognizably myself.

The first dance I made up was and this was, to my knowledge, the first use of American folk material on the concert stage. The second da.nee was Stageright after Degas. I had seen the wax statuette of his twisted ballet child in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and thought she looked like me. The aching knees, the strained back, the dirty, smudgy face, the pride. I made five studies before I got what I wanted. The next dance was called Ballet Class.

I haunted upholstery and fabric departments.

I flattened my face on the glass of the cheap jewelry shops on Broadway. Sometimes I hunted two months for the proper earrings. I took the stand that I was designing the costumes myself and needed no advice. For the next decade Mother entertained the Single-Taxers with eighteenth-century brocade in her lap while she stitched tiny spangles into the design or pleated gauzes. She was wonderfully skillful with ruffles, rosettes, laces, and embroideries and invented and sewed far and away beyond the call of duty. My costumes were, as her mother used to say before her, sewn “with the red blood of time.” They were miracles of hand-wrought detail.


I BEGAN to give auditions for agents. I borrowed Walter Hampden’s theater for the purpose, He was always extremely gracious about lending it to me. The Boys came. The Boys in every country look alike, something closely akin to newspaper reporters at an inquest. Their hats are a little higher in the crown, their ties and linen cleaner and more expensive, their hands more frequently manicured. About liquor, sex, and money the feel the same. Also about art. The Boys are seldom producers, but they are always the men around producers, and except in Hollywood, which is their Valhalla, they are never directors. Nowhere in the world are they writers, scene designers, composers, or instrumentalists.

The Boys usually keep their hats and coats on during auditions. They smoke. They make then decisions standing in the aisle with lowered heads, hatted, and ihen they walk out quickly, leaving one or perhaps two to come soberly to the foot lights and tell you. You stand, breathing hard, the sweat cold on your forehead, the make-up caking dry leaning forward to see their faces, recognizing from the rhythm of their walk and their little irrelevant jokes that they are moving sideways toward an awkwardness.

Hen Boyar, who spoke for The Boys, was kind but final. The sum total of their opinion was “noncommercial — artistic and all that, but absolutely, totally, irrevocably noncommercial.

“All right, so you are, said Mother bet s plan on a concert quickly.

It looked as if gelling together a program of new dances were g ang to take the better part of a year, anti in the meantime I wanted to get on a stage. So I continued to give auditions although it played havoc with my practice schedule. One audition was like another — 1 cannot even remember before whom I danced. In the course of time, however, I danced before every known manager and agent in New York,

I remember standing on an empty stage one noon warming up while a series of singers and specialty dancers milled around an upright piano. Out bout in the dark were the boss and his henchmen. A dark, large-boned girl walked to the footlights and stood half insolently, half amusedly, with one foot on the coping. She spoke in a bass voice: What do you want me to do?” I had practiced my dance for six months. I had forgone clothes so that I might have the tutu. It was beginning to will a little from lugging around. I had been up since eight packing, and in the theater for an hour and a half applying make-up and doing a complete barre. “ What shall I do?” she said with a. languorous drawl, staring insolently at them. “Here, sing this,” said a young man standing by the piano. Her voice sounded like hot chocolate. Oh, nuts! she said and threw the music down. “I didn’t want to come here anyway this morning.’ The men laughed. “Come here and talk to me, said the young man and they went into a huddle behind the piano. The girl was Libby Holman; this was her first audition, and the young man behind the piano was Howard Dietz.

Now it was my turn. I spoke in crisp accents; “My study is a satire based on the paintings of Hilaire Edgar Degas, 1831 1917. You know the paintings of Degas?” Silence. “Degas painted the ballet girls at the opera at the time of their greatest decadence — well, you must have seen them.” A voice cut through; Are you ready to dance?” “ May I have the stage cleared, please, and silence ”

Silence was what I got. Not a titter; not a chuckle; not an indication of understanding. The quiet lasted for about a minute, then I could hear them talking. They’d put their heads together and were going right on with their business. I hey had stopped looking. An electrician carried a light across my path. I checked my jumps. “Aren’t, you through?” said a stage manager. “I’m sorry. As I was making my exit, before I had reached the edge of the stage, came the “thank you” from the front and the next girl walked down to the footlights. Two singers, numb with sympathy and terror, looked up iron) the bond) on which they were wailing and said, “ Very original, dear, reallv very original,”and they smiled encouragingly.

Mother said a change of scene was indicated. We would go to Santa Fe and give a concert.

Wliv Santa Fe? It could have been any town, so long as there was a friend to help. In Santa he lived Mary Hunter and her aunt, the terrible old Indy of the Indian country, Mary Austin. Also Santa Fe was on the way to the West Coast, wheie Mother had to appear for her interlocutory decree.

The costumes went in one trunk with the music, our clothes in another. Mother underlook to find a theater, I a pianist. There was a theater, a fairsized one, but it had been used for prize fights for the last six years. It smelled rather high, and the stage had gone pulpy and rotten. Molhcr went right out to the local sawmill and got a man with a planing machine to ride over it and remove the fur of splinters. Then she bought putty and, crawling over the entire length of the floor on her hands and knees, puttied up the holes crack by crack. It’s hot in Santa Fe in July. One goes white behind the eyes and feels for the nearest support. I returned from my practice in the parish house with the local piano teacher, whose daughter had been exposed to the measles, all tuckered out and a mite discouraged. “Have some iced tea,” said Mother, sitting in a cool print dress in a cool hotel room. “Have some iced tea. I fixed the stage.” And there was the iced tea clinking in a jug, and a bowl of garden flowers beside it and some little cookies, bought at the local grocer’s, on a glass plate. “Have a cold bath and relax,” said Mother, writing a letter to Hollywood. “It’s all done.

There was nothing left to do but send a notice to the local paper, the Santa Fe New Mexican, edited by Dennis De Brian De Buru Finnegan, to print tickets and place them for sale at the local dry-goods store. And why does anyone buy a ticket for a strange girl from New York who thinks she can dance? Why, a letter from Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, and another from Edna St. Vincent Millay to some tubercular friends. (Why not go? In God’s name, what else to do on a Saturday night in the middle of a long summer? If it’s too awful, one can sneak out and finish getting drunk at Mamie’s Bar.)

At six o’clock of the fateful night Mary Hunter burst into the hotel bathroom where I sat steaming in the tub collecting my wits. “We’ve done it! We’ve done it!” she exulted. “We’re clear! Three hundred and sixty-four dollars in cold cash. The expenses are paid. Oh, how happy I was! There was no responsibility for me further except to be a great artist. But that seemed simple.

The program went from start to finish as planned and did not stop. Mother dressed me backstage, which was all right except that she very much minded my swearing and stopped to remonstrate. She also stopped whenever a stagehand came anywhere near, and lifted up a sheet until he had passed. This made the changes slow.

The poets said, pouring their cocktails next afternoon, they thought the first number showed wit, the second none. The painters liked the color of my third dress. The Sunday-school teacher wondered if I wouldn’t come to a strawberry breakfast on Thursday. The Indians were convulsed. Why on the ends of the feet? Why, on the very ends? Didn’t it hurt? What was the use? The Santa Fe New Mexican hailed me as Duncan’s successor.

What did Mary Hunter think? She thought I was all right. And Mary Austin? She thought a lot of things. She thought a lot of things about every fact that came to her attention. We had supper at sundown on a slope under the Sangre de Cristos mountains; and wrapped in an Indian blanket against the chill of the evening she told me what she thought w hile she prodded a piece of meat on a sharpened stick into the campfire. She spoke like a sibyl.

“ In every Indian ceremonial,” said Mary Austin, in the blue Santa Fe evening as we lay staring at the mountain line where the deserts began, staring out over the undefined precipices of color, down toward Albuquerque where twelve years before during a halt in the transcontinental trip I had seen my first Indians, my first cowmen lounging and walking among them, “in every ceremonial, there is the moment when the priest says the word that makes the magic. Up to that point, it has been ceremonial; after that it is potent. Your hands have that power. They make living contact with the audience. What you do becomes a living experience because of the potency of the gesture. . . . The Indians permit anything as long as the God is present. Anything —even the sex act — if the God is present. When He is absent, they consider everything obscene and not worth serious attention. They make great fun of the white man’s dances and plays because the God is almost never there.” She fastened me with the sharp steady look of a frontier woman. “Never let the God be absent from your stage. Say your prayers before you dance.” The Spanish tortoise-shell comb in her bun gleamed in the moonlight like a horny crown. She had an arrogant, gray mustache, a drooping mouth, and a dictatorial manner. She did not converse — she issued bulls. She had broken the wilderness.

Like the real Indians, Mary Austin believed in living magic. She was making magic between her and me. We both knew this. I have not forgotten anything she said to me.

“Stop being sorry for yourself,” said Aunt Mary. “We have all gone through this. Say your prayers and you will be a good dancer. The activities and the expressions of men are controlled by the land they live in — the American climate, the topography, the mountains and plains have affected all inhabitants, Indian, Spanish, Catholic, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon — all, no matter how unlike, are stamped by the forces under which men live. You must let the rhythm of the American earth come through what you do.

“Never let the God be absent,” she continued, “and don’t be sorry for yourself.”

(To be continued)