Mary Day, 1910-2006

Ballet School Founder With an Eye for Talent

Mary Day co-founded the Washington School of Ballet in 1944 and created the Washington Ballet company. She taught thousands over the years.
Mary Day co-founded the Washington School of Ballet in 1944 and created the Washington Ballet company. She taught thousands over the years. (1981 Photo By Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Mary Day, co-founder of the Washington School of Ballet, one of the nation's finest training grounds for classical dancers, and the grande dame of Washington ballet for six decades, died of complications from heart disease yesterday at her home in Washington. She was 96.

Her school's performances of "The Nutcracker," starting in 1961 at DAR Constitution Hall, became a Washington holiday tradition for three generations of dancers and vast audiences. She also created the internationally recognized Washington Ballet company.

Day identified and developed so much world-class talent at the ballet school that her former students dance in virtually every sizable company in the nation. Among the alumni are Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre; Amanda McKerrow, the first American to win a gold medal in a Moscow International Ballet Competition; and Virginia Johnson, a former principal at the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Day danced, too, but her main talent was as a teacher who could spot an improperly pointed toe or overly arched spine, dismissing applicants to her company with a glance at their photographs.

"She is famous for those eyes," a 1993 Washington Post Magazine profile said. "Not because they are big and dark and planted under high, penciled-in brows. Not because she can focus them with an intensity so ferocious that former pupil Shirley MacLaine told her she 'could frighten a Cossack' with her stare. Not because they rarely offer clues as to what this most private of women is thinking. Because they have always been able to see things nobody else's could see."

She saw that Washington, her home town, could become the nursery, elementary and graduate school for the lean, long-stemmed and lively artists who, in adulthood, could wow worldwide audiences. She taught thousands over the years, not just pre-professional dancers, but also daughters of presidents, future architects and attorneys and actresses.

"We know that not all of them are going to be professional dancers," Day said. "All we ask is that they have the ability to learn."

A native of Foggy Bottom, she corralled her playmates into her first shows when she was a schoolgirl. Day began her formal ballet training at age 11. She studied in New York and Europe, but her most influential schooling came from former Anna Pavlova company dancer Lisa Gardiner.

She taught ballet individually until 1944, when she and Gardiner began the Washington School of Ballet, instructing anyone older than 6. By partnering with the National Symphony Orchestra, Washington National Cathedral, various chorales and even the D.C. recreation department, she plugged away at her goal of turning the provincial nation's capital into a center for arts in general and dance specifically.

Day brought world-famous dancers to the District and found ways to promote and showcase their performances, even as she built local support for her school. She became the sole director of the school in 1958, when Gardiner died.

In the early years, the lithe, dark-haired impresario would descend from her apartment above the ballet school on Wisconsin Avenue NW and dance in the dark, creating the steps that would guide her students the next day. As the daughter of a seamstress, she knew how to handle a needle and thread, and alone in her sitting room, she would put finishing touches on ballet costumes.

Nothing escaped her eagle eye, friends and colleagues said, especially regarding the "Nutcracker" performances, which became so financially successful that they supported her other enterprises.

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