Modern Dance Lessons by
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Prompted By Lessons

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Looking back at modern dance lessons in Manhattan, and the drive through the Holland Tunnel to get there.

As a child I took many different kinds of lessons — piano, oboe, art, and modern dance. Of these four skills, the oboe is the only one I still practice as an adult, but that’s not what this story is about. It was my modern dance classes that provide the most interesting memories. So this story is about memories of lessons that I took, rather than lessons that I learned.

My older sisters and I all took modern dance. For those who don’t know, this is much like ballet, and the dancers wear leotards and tights like ballet dancers, but it is done in bare feet. Nowadays you can buy footless tights, but back then we had to slit the seam in the foot and then roll the foot part up to our ankles. For some reason, everyone who did modern dance was very disdainful of ballet, thinking that ours was a vastly superior art, so of course I thought so too. For many years, I turned up my nose at ballet, and wouldn’t even go to see the Nutcracker. As an adult I have come to appreciate ballet, but I still love modern dance companies such as Alvin Ailey and Twyla Tharp.

My sisters had their dance classes in a town near us in North Jersey, but by the time I was old enough for lessons, that studio must have closed, and so I was taken into New York to study with Paul Sanasardo and Donya Feuer (you can look them up — they actually both have Wikipedia pages, I was amazed to discover). I started when I was 6 and probably stopped by the time I was 9. There were 2 or 3 other girls who lived near me who also went to that studio, so we had a carpool every Saturday. I have to admit, my strongest memories are from the carpool, not the actual classes. To get from New Jersey to the lower part of Manhattan we would drive through the Holland Tunnel. In the middle of the tunnel, there is a thick stripe going up one wall, across the ceiling, and down the other wall, delineating the border between the two states. Every time we drove past that stripe, we would yell at the top of our lungs, “We’re in New York” or “We’re in New Jersey” (depending on which way we were going, obviously). I also remember that the father of one of the girls, when it was his turn to drive, would always say on the return trip, as we crossed the line into New Jersey, “aah, the air is so much fresher here,” and he would take in some deep breaths. That always made us laugh.

My other strong memory was of a performance we did at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. It was a very big deal, lots of important people were going to be there, and we rehearsed for months. There were not very many boys in our company, and probably none in my age group. The plot of the dance I was in (which I no longer remember, and never totally understood) required some of the girls, including me, to play the part of boys, and somebody decided that we should wear no shirts, to make us look more like boys. I was not very happy with this idea, but apparently I didn’t object strongly enough. On the day of the performance, we had shirts on backstage, but then they made us take them off before we went out. So at the age of 7 or 8, I danced topless on the stage of the 92nd St Y!

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Characterizations: been there, funny, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    I took some ballet and modern dance at camp…always liked modern better, as it was freer, but I totally understand your sentiment about the two as my mother grew up in the early years of the dance form, studying from some of the masters and said the modern dancers had a certain distain for ballet (though that was her first love). She went to a summer program at Bennington and studied with Doris Humphry (Jose Limon was her protege), but Martha Graham was also in residence and they all ate together. This was in 1935. After graduating from college, my mother went to Manhattan from Toledo, OH and studied with Doris for a year. She always said it was the best year of her life. But she wasn’t good enough and came back and became a book keeper in her father’s jewelry store.

    I also love your depiction of dancing “topless” at the 92nd St. Y (there are never enough boys in the arts).

  2. Great account of ‘le dance’, Suzy! Love you getting snooty about ballet from a modern dancer’s POV. Also this line: “which I no longer remember, and never totally understood.” Isn’t that a universal truth? Tks! CD

  3. Susan says:

    “..lessons I took, rather than lessons I learned.” Wow. I bet my mother would look back on all the bucks she shelled out for various lessons for my sister and me, and would hate to weigh them in that balance!

  4. John Zussman says:

    So you can add “topless dancer” to your resume! These are lovely memories. Patti and I (ballet snobs) think of Twyla Tharp as a “modern ballet” company, where the dancers are trained classically but the choreography is more expressive and contemporary. Did you see the Milos Forman film of Hair? She choreographed it and it was heavenly.

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