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.
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.”
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.”
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