DC's Grande Dame: DT Lifetime Achievement Awardee Mary Day

Over the course of a remarkable teaching career that spanned more than half a century, 2005 Dance Teacher Lifetime Achievement Award winner Mary Day founded The Washington School of Ballet and its affiliated company, played mentor to several generations of dance stars—and changed more than a few ordinary lives along the way.

Among the many mementos on display in Mary Day’s elegant townhouse in Washington, DC, is a photo of her with Shirley MacLaine, one of her most famous alumni at The Washington School of Ballet. It’s a telling shot: Both women are in profile, but it’s MacLaine who is the student looking up to the master. The picture was taken around the time of the 1998 film Madame Sousatzka, in which MacLaine played a brilliant but temperamental piano teacher. It’s a characterization she based on Day, and despite some Hollywood-style exaggeration, MacLaine got her teacher’s passion for artistry over flash exactly right.

Day, however, is no mere film character. Although she no longer teaches, she’s one of America’s premier ballet pioneers who realized a dream of creating something for her hometown and took that dream to world-class heights. “My mission was to develop the audience for the arts in Washington, DC. It was the beginning of what we see now,” says Day, who turned 95 in January. “I’ve always felt that dance is for everyone, [even though] everyone is not for professional dance. Good dance training is an invaluable contribution to success in many walks of life.”

The list of famous WSB alumni is a lengthy one—including MacLaine, Lili Cockerille, Patrick Corbin, Kevin McKenzie, Amanda McKerrow, Mimi Paul, Jenifer Ringer and Georgia Engle (Georgette from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”). “She created a steady stream of not just really talented people that went on to dance professionally,” attests McKenzie, now artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, “but she nurtured so many people who grew up to be influential in the dance field.”

Day’s love of ballet was sparked early. “I was 3 or 4 and was taken to a performance at the Belasco Theater [in Washington, DC],” she recalls. “I remember all of these tiny children and a woman yelling at them. After that, I dreamed of dance.” It wasn’t long before she began recruiting neighborhood children so that she could make dances. “I was always the one putting it all together,” Day says. She began formal studies at 11 or 12. “I knew how to move, but I also knew from the beginning that I wasn’t a Swan Queen.”

Nevertheless, Day started dancing with Washington ballet maven Lisa Gardner’s group when she was in her 20s. To help make ends meet, she began teaching in Northwest Washington, DC, where her flair for putting together productions and knack for teaching produced a nickname: “the pied piper of Northwest.” She was so successful, in fact, that after Gardner’s school relocated, the two joined forces in 1944 under the name The Washington School of the Ballet, eventually moving to the school’s current site on Wisconsin Avenue in 1948. (Its name is now The Washington School of Ballet.) Day became sole director after Gardner’s death.

During that time, she and fellow Washingtonian Howard Mitchell, conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, whose daughters Day taught, decided to do something about their shared desire to raise the cultural level in DC. “We realized that there was something missing here that we had to do something about,” Day says. Agreeing that the place to start was educating children about the arts, Day worked with Mitchell to create three-act ballets based on children’s stories. What developed into a longtime partnership between Day’s students and the NSO got off to a memorable start with her Hansel and Gretel.

Ballets such as Cinderella and Rackety Packety House, based on the story by Frances Hodgson Burnett, were hugely successful, thanks to Day’s innovative ideas and the clever costumes that she designed and executed herself. Once the children’s stories had begun to catch on, Day turned her attention to adult performances, doing outdoor shows at Carter Baron Amphitheater and the National Cathedral.

Mary Day teaching a class at The Washington School of Ballet

WSB and the NSO really hit their stride with Day’s production of The Nutcracker, which debuted in 1961 and ran for more than 40 years. Though still technically a student performance, the orchestra billed the company as The Washington Ballet. However, it wasn’t until 1976 that the current company was formally established. Like everything that Day did, there was a clear goal in mind: The Washington Ballet was to be a place where students who had grown up in the school could have a career without having to leave home.

Behind the many successful productions lay Day’s real strength, her teaching. After all, it’s in the classroom that a dancer begins to understand not only how to dance, but what good dancing is. WSB was well-established as one of the country’s top schools when the success of The Nutcracker made it possible for Day to take the school to the next level.

In 1962, inspired by the training system in Russia, she founded the Academy of The Washington School of Ballet. At the Academy, which ran for 15 years, students received their high school education and their dance training all under one roof. The building on Wisconsin Avenue continued to expand to accommodate more dance classes and classrooms, while dormitories were created for boarding students.

Even with the addition of academics, however, movement remained at the heart of everything. “I tried to make [students] feel, from the very beginning, a quality of dance,” Day says. Along with a sense of reverence for the art, she wanted her students to understand that dance involved every part of them: “I was dealing with not just the body moving, but the opening of the eyes and ears.”

Day relaxing in the garden of her Washington, DC, home

As time went by, students at WSB looked forward to earning the distinction of being known as a “Mary Day dancer.” The best of her students had a confidence born of the sense that, by virtue of an innate quality that Day had recognized, they were part of a select group. “Those of us who grew up under Mary Day’s tutelage were proud that in a crowded studio we could be easily picked out,” says McKenzie. “The characteristics that made us stick out were a fine musicality and sense of line, [and] heads and arms that worked through a harmony of breath and sensitivity.”

For Day, everything started from the breath. “To feel the breath: That is the basis of good training,” she says with the particular emphasis she uses for key points. “As you breathe, you feel the arms begin to move, and the armpits open up and the flow of air goes down through the arms to the hand, all the way to the fingertips. They don’t have to curl at the end, or all of those funny things; just shake your hands and feel the air go all the way to the fingertips.”

According to McKerrow, who first stunned the ballet world in 1981 when she won the gold medal at the Moscow International Ballet Competition and who danced her last performances as an ABT principal this summer, it was Day’s unerring eye that could always pick out what made an individual unique and what that dancer had to offer. The purity of the training McKerrow received from Day undoubtedly contributed to her success, but the ballerina recalls something more.

“It was more important that you express what it is that you are trying to say and use your technical vocabulary to do it,” says McKerrow. “She trained into me the notion that, rather than getting bogged down in it, technique is a means to an end.”

Day was an inspired teacher who often adjusted classes to get what she wanted. “I remember sometimes her coming in and we would [spend] a long time at the barre on pointe, but other times, we wouldn’t,” says McKerrow.

“She always was aware of where the class needed to go that day.” She was also well aware of all of the emotional baggage that can accompany ballet study, and did what she could to keep things in perspective for parents as well as students. “When a parent would come to me and say, ‘She wants to be a dancer,’” Day says, “to avoid the heartbreak that this child might have if she’s allowed to think something that doesn’t happen, I would say, ‘We won’t even talk about that. Let’s see if she can learn to dance. And when she’s old enough, then we’ll decide whether or not she has the potential to allow her to think that she might be a dancer.”

But no matter what her students’ talent level or professional prospects, she didn’t neglect to lay down a firm foundation for movement or expect anything less than hard work from all of them. “She was strict, but nurturing,” remembers McKenzie. “She demanded respect for the artform. She understood the power of setting the bar up another notch and led you to your best work.”

Day’s love of dance, and the pleasure she gets from passing on that feeling for movement, remain undiminished. However, she admits that the years since 1999, when WB’s board of directors decided to pass the reins of the company to current Artistic Director Septime Webre, have had their ups and downs.

For his part, Webre has the utmost respect for Day and what she has created. “Mary has contributed so significantly to this city and to the dance world,” he says. “I think she has dealt with the challenges of turning over her beloved school and company with much grace and elegance, despite how difficult it might be emotionally. What has won the day is her great love for dance, so whenever a dancer triumphs, she is inspired—and that is inspiring.”

Webre is continuing many of the guiding principles set by Day when she envisioned The Washington Ballet as a company of well-trained dancers doing high-quality, innovative works that have been created for them. Heading the school now is former American Ballet Theatre and Joffrey Ballet ballerina Rebecca Wright, who, as Webre says, “has renewed our commitment to Mary Day’s legacy of pure classical technique. The school is following Mary’s syllabus and her vision of pure, unaffected training as a basis for any professional dancer.”

“Good dance training is an invaluable contribution to success in many walks of life.” —Mary Day

Day wouldn’t necessarily put so much emphasis on the professional dancer, but times have changed. In her eyes, there seems to be less thinking about the value of learning to dance for such life skills as discipline, poise and self-assurance than a as a specific career choice.

"I wanted to make the children feel that this is part of their education. [Just because] you go to school to learn your ABCs and everything else, it doesn't mean you have to be a great professor in math. You [should] go to ballet school as part of your education. And you may turn out to be a super ballerina—we don't know—but it can help you in many walks of life, whatever  you do, because you are going to walk differently and you are going to enjoy more what you see in the theater.

"I've had very good luck all of my life in having enough really good people to teach so they responded and progressed. But the others also gave me a great deal of satisfaction. Seeing that the directions that I gave were helping, that the back became stronger, and the knees were reshaped—just to sit there and watch them go out the front door, you could see the progress in the back, and in the walk. That was very gratifying. There was equal gratification in developing somebody to the higher level. I loved every one of them." DT

Virginia Johnson, the editor of Pointe magazine, is a former student of Mary Day's and a former principal dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Photography by Richard Greenhouse

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending
Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

Finally compelled to speak up, Griffith led a virtual seminar in June for the entire dance community entitled "Racism and the Dance World." Over a thousand people viewed her presentation, which was inspired in part by the mentorship of longtime family friend Dr. Joy DeGruy, an expert on institutionalized racism. Floored but encouraged by such a large turnout, Griffith quickly prepared a follow-up seminar, which also had a positive response.

"Teachers kept reaching out to me and saying, How do I talk to my students about this? They don't care about anything but steps," she says.

In response, Griffith designed a six-week professional-development program—Roots, Rhythm, Race & Dance, or R3 Dance—for teachers of any style seeking ways to introduce age-appropriate concepts about race and dance history to their students. The history of the art form, she points out, is the context in which we all teach and perform every day.

Griffith laughs, with eyes closed and fingers snapping to the side, as she demonstrates in front of a class of adults. A toddler is at her side, also in tap shoes

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"The white hip-hop teacher asking why Black people are trolling them on Instagram happens against the same backdrop as Tamir Rice holding a pellet gun and not surviving a confrontation with police," she says. "We try to see them as separate things, but they're really not."

R3 Dance isn't the first program Griffith, a 43-year-old mother of two, created for teachers. Since 2018, she has run the Facebook group "Dance Studios on Tap!," a space for sharing struggles and successes in the classroom, teaching tips and ideas on growing studio tap programs.

She has also offered a 10-week, online teacher training program, "Tap Teachers' Lounge," since 2018. Through lecture-demonstrations, discussions, dance classes and workshop sessions, Griffith helps studio instructors increase student enrollment, engagement and success in their tap programs.

"I had started to feel what so many professionals know from experience," she says. "There are huge gaps in people's training, and teachers don't get the benefit of individualized, process-oriented feedback about their pedagogy, especially when it comes to tap dance."

Griffith knew she could help fill in many of those gaps. She also suspected her resumé would appeal to a variety of tap teachers: Some might be impressed by her teaching credits at Pace University and Broadway Dance Center, while others would notice her experience with the Rockettes and Cirque du Soleil, or her connections to tap artists such as Chloe Arnold and Dormeshia.

Griffith also knew that many tap teachers are the sole tap instructors at their studios and have few opportunities to attend tap festivals or master classes. With her programs, they can learn exclusively online, without having to travel, while still teaching their weekly classes.

A key feature of the teacher training program is that participants submit video of exercises they've been working on and get feedback from Griffith. They're expected to implement that feedback and report back on their progress the following week. For Griffith, that accountability is a cornerstone of her pedagogy.

"Teaching is a practice—you have to put it on its feet, you have to do it," she says. "I want to give teachers the tools they need for their practice, and then talk about how that practice informs their preparation in the future, just like how you would teach anything else."

Griffith walks across the front of a studio, clapping her hands, as a large class of teen students practice a tap combination

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

Griffith takes a similar approach for R3 Dance, which last year included 180 participants from around the world working in public schools, private studios, universities and other settings, teaching both tap and social dance. Teachers might bring an anti-racist statement they're drafting for their studio, for example, or a lesson plan or proposed changes to a college syllabus.

Griffith also gives teachers the knowledge to confidently structure and lead conversations about race in the dance industry. Participants typically come with a range of comfort levels in discussing race, says Griffith, some just beginning to comprehend race as a factor in dance. Others have read books and watched documentaries but don't know how to translate what they've learned into lessons. Some worry that starting difficult conversations with colleagues or students will get them fired or reprimanded.

But Griffith says she's been encouraged by the ways in which participants have reflected on everything from their costuming and choreography to their social media presence and hiring practices as a result of the program.

"It's been really inspiring to see more teachers taking this part of history with the gravity that it deserves—not in a way that makes them cry, but that makes them get to work," she says.

For instance, Maygan Wurzer, founder and director of All That Dance in Seattle, Washington, found her studio's diversity and inclusion program enhanced after attending R3 Dance with two of her colleagues. This includes a living document where all 19 instructors share materials that they're using to diversify their curriculum, such as lessons on tap and modern dancers of color, and asking teen students to research the history of race in various dance genres and present their findings.

These changes address a common problem that Griffith notices: Teachers give lessons on certain styles, steps or artists without providing sufficient historical context. For example, it's important to know who Fred Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers were, but it's equally vital to understand how racism contributed to the former having a more prominent place in the annals of dance history.

Griffith stands next to a large screen with a powerpoint presentation showing the name "Bill Bojangles Robinson" with some photos. She holds a microphone and speaks to a large group of students who sit on the ground

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"Topics like privilege and cultural appropriation need the same kind of thought and vision as teaching technique," she explains. "You have to layer those conversations, just like you wouldn't teach fouetté turns to a level-one student."

For educators who have finished one or both of her programs, Griffith is scheduling regular meetings to discuss further implementation strategies and lead additional workshopping sessions.

"As educators, we're excavators who bring out what we can in our students," she says. "But sometimes our tools get dull, and we need to keep sharpening them."

Ultimately, Griffith says that this work has been empowering not just for her students but also for her.

"Dance teachers are completely fine with being uncomfortable and taking feedback," she says. "I found an energy to do this work because there are so many people who are willing to do it with me."

Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

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