Mary Day Taught Steps for Living

Mary Day, left, with her student Amanda McKerrow in 1981 after McKerrow won a gold medal in Moscow.
Mary Day, left, with her student Amanda McKerrow in 1981 after McKerrow won a gold medal in Moscow. (By Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post)
By Virginia Johnson
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Iwas 13 when I first encountered Mary Day. She and her school were already legendary, and I can still remember how awestruck I felt to be auditioning for her. But I knew that if I was serious about becoming a ballerina, the Washington School of Ballet was where I had to study. I had been well prepared by my first teacher, Therrell Smith, but it was time to put my determination to a bigger test.

No one told me that it might have been foolish for a young woman of color (we were still "Negroes" at that time) to present herself for a scholarship to the city's most prestigious ballet school. In the early '60s, Washington was still a fairly segregated city, and ballet in particular was seen as a whites-only art form. I was the only African American in my class, and although it seems curious to me now, I can't recall any instance, from that first meeting in tiny Studio 1 until I actually faced the prospect of getting a professional ballet job, where there was any discussion of the color of my skin.

At that audition, Day peered at me with those piercing dark eyes and figured there was something there to work with, and that was enough. The pioneering ballet teacher, who died yesterday at the age of 96, gave me more than a scholarship that day -- she gave me a world. The training I received at WSB, first taking classes every day after school and then in the now-defunct Academy, where the days were filled with academics, dance classes and rehearsals, was the best launch any aspiring ballerina could have hoped for. Upon graduation, I was primed for my career with the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Ballet was Day's passion; she thought of it as an essential part of life. In 1976 she founded the Washington Ballet, the jewel-box company intended as an outlet for the fine dancers turned out by her school, which she had created in 1944 with her mentor, Lisa Gardiner. She knew that only a small percentage of the hopefuls who came through her school would have the rare combination of gifts that would enable them to dance professionally. Still, she believed in the value of studying ballet, especially for the young.

Imparted along with the tendus and ports de bras was a sense of reverence for the art of ballet. Those who passed through the doors at 3515 Wisconsin Ave. NW were marked by Day's discernment of what was proper and good. Beauty was in the details -- the shape of the hand, the use of the feet. She was very disappointed, as time went on and she had less control over the teaching in the school, when she saw feet that had not been properly sensitized. Highly arched or not, a human foot in a satin pointe shoe has to be groomed to beauty. Day was a hands-on teacher, molding bodies, redirecting energy, extending lines. Each succeeding year under her tutelage was a refinement on the year before.

Her distinction as a teacher had more to do with the "how" than the "what." There was a certain amount of pride in being able to call oneself a "Mary Day dancer." Her trademark was an elegance of line and a feeling for artistry rather than flash. Technical competence was assured, but studying at WSB, you knew that technique was there only to serve your art.

Day insisted on decorum. After the formal bow that ended each class, the students lined up to say thank you to her as well. I see her still in Studio 2, elegant in a white tailored shirt and black stretch ski pants looped under her long, narrow feet. It seemed that her sleeves were always rolled up. A peculiar mix of warmth and detachment, she was always focused on the task at hand: ballet, meeting its standards, defending its ground.

Not without ambition, Day took her best students off to the ballet world's premier competitions and came back with medals -- most notably Amanda McKerrow's gold medal at the Moscow competition in 1981. But, regardless of whether the student in question was one of her special proteges, had a parent in the White House (Caroline Kennedy or Chelsea Clinton) or was simply a newcomer in the after-school division, she took care with all.

Behind all of the accomplishments was a very private person with a drive that few could equal. As a young woman in the late '30s and '40s, she recognized that ballet could spark the languishing cultural scene in the nation's capital. Although eventually her work as a teacher and director was celebrated internationally, I think she was proudest of her role in the cultivation of the arts in her home town.

I think it pained her in her later years that ballet was no longer the elevated art form she groomed her dancers to exemplify. The down-and-dirty world of popular culture had no place in her vision. She wanted ballet to remain exalted. If she had had her way, ballet would continue to symbolize a beautiful world of order and refinement. But an art form cannot exist outside its time. The ballet she fiercely guarded served mid-20th-century America, but as the century turned, something else was needed. I don't think she was ever reconciled to that evolution, and she regretted keenly the loss of control over the institutions she created.

The institutions she built are a tangible legacy, but her influence lives on more significantly in the students she shaped -- such as Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre -- who are now in decision-making positions around the globe. The glorious thing about ballet is that, without notation or text, it is handed down from generation to generation through the bodies and character of those who went before. A teacher's real success is in planting seeds that continue to flower. And Mary Day, with her high standard and expectation of excellence, did just that for all of us who follow.

Virginia Johnson, a former prima ballerina with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, is the editor of Pointe magazine in New York.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company