Dressing Rooms

Dressing Rooms

The first one I remember was at Miss Gavone’s School of Dance on Cleveland Circle in Brookline. It was upstairs on the top floor reached by a narrow wooden staircase (the song from Chorus Line occurs “ Up a steep and narrow staircase”). At the top was a long narrow room, basically a hall leading to a bathroom. The hall had benches along both sides and rows of hooks on the wall. Actually the stairs went on, about 6 steps up leading to a landing and a wall. Maybe the builders were paid by the step? In the dressing room I only saw students from the class before or after me. I played on the surplus steps until it was time for my lesson.

My next dressing room was at the Boston Conservatory Dance Department on Hemenway Street. It was subterranean, overheated and crowded with kids, teenagers, and the real dancers from the professional department. I remember leotards drying on the radiators and many shoes lying around, street, toe, ballet shoes in all stages of disrepair and mal-usage (backs crushed down, holes in front, torn ties dangling), tap shoes, soft red boots (for character). Here I learned to wear rubber baby pants (to lose weight, very uncomfortable, creating bulges around the edges), eventually banned by the teachers, who held we should develop our own muscles or lose weight. It was here I got my first whiff of “professional”, listening to the chatter, the noise of girls changing (have you seen my…, can I borrow your…, I forgot my…); and where I learned to refer to a dancing lesson as a dance class.

Then there was the dressing room at the Martha Graham Studio in New York City- hushed, grey, clean, upstairs.

As was the dressing room at the International School of Dance in Carnegie Hall, very small, very crowded and separated from the long, narrow studio only by partitions, solid enough for coat hooks but not much else. There were benches but, once changed, you watched class or went down to the reception/pay area where there were well-worn sofas. If a musician was playing the class before yours, you could sit on the steps to listen. If you stayed in the dressing room you could chat with the old (anyone over 40) ladies still taking class. The gypsies, in for class before the matinee, talked mainly about auditions, who was up for what show, who was looking for what, who had an apartment to sublet when she went on tour. I was just starting to fit in, beginning to feel part of it (I had a couple of off/off Broadway gigs) when I got the scholarship.

The dressing room on the upper floor of the old villa had probably once been the master bedroom, the small room next door perhaps a study or a dressing room in former times. This was a phrase I heard very often in those first months in Germany and took to mean pre-war. Between the large and the small room was the en suite bathroom, with all the usual plus a bidet, also pre-war. These two dressing rooms also established a social order, as we were told by our English-speaking guide and fellow student. Foreign students and guests were supposed to use the smaller room. The regular students populated the big room, colonizing benches, hooks and a place by the radiator on a long- term basis. All the rooms in the post-war home of the Mary Wigman Studio were on the verge of unheated. But we were supposed to keep warm dancing.
In this studio I soon learned, you stayed upstairs in the dressing room until Mary hit the gong to signal the beginning of class. At that point everyone would slip into her worn-out, downtrodden soft ballet shoes and slap down the stairs to curtsy to Mary, who stood by the studio door, gong in hand. Part of my steep learning curve in Germany was observing this ritual from the safety of a small couch tucked under the stairs. We four Americans were never actually told not to sit on the couch I think. Maybe Nora, the dragon secretary once asked us to vacate for a guest. Across from the couch there was a square table with two chairs in a corner close to the wood-enclosed radiators. There was no other seating in the main hall. (At home, we would have sat on the stairs to wait, and been more comfortable. However.) This corner was the sparring ground for Manja and Til, teachers who each had ambitions to take over once Mary, 75, finally gave up. In spite of being warmer, that corner had a cloud of tension over it. We avoided it.
It took many months for me to understand almost everything that was part and parcel of the Wigman Studio. But I still think a few more light bulbs, a bit more coal in the furnace and a few more laughs in the studio would have helped a lot.

After my decision to stay in Germany I found other dressing rooms more familiar to the ones I knew in Boston and New York- dirty, loud, hot and with bad plumbing.

The dressing room in Munich was like that, but different. As a teacher I shared an office/ dressing room with the other three teachers, two men and a woman. I would come in to change while Gustav Blank was teaching, hide behind the curtain hung onto a bookcase and emerge, changed, to shake his hand on my way to the studio next door, carrying the unforgettable smell of his eau de cologne on my right hand. Michel de Lutry, an English/Swiss/French colleague, would send me into the studio chuckling over some shameful, unseemly dirty joke. I ceded the place behind the curtain to Conny when she came to teach. Prima Ballerinas like Constanze Vernon have priority, certainly in Munich.

When I finally got my own dressing room, in the Tanz Tangente, it was spatially worse than all the others: no window, exactly the width of my arms outstretched, but including a small kitchen and a couch as well as purpose-built office furniture on the wall. And it was mine, at least 90 shares of it. Eventually we moved the dressing room to a larger space and I even had a locker. However, it was in this dressing room that I was robbed – in home territory, in the Steglitzer Kreisel – shocking.

Signs warning of thieves hang in every dressing room in every dance studio in every town in the world. My first loss happened, fittingly, in New York where everything is bigger, better and more dangerous. I was taking tap classes after my retirement. The dressing room was a composite of all the others (except the Wigman studio), just more so. In an unusual postscript, the theater tickets, stolen along with my wallet, re-appeared that evening in the disbelieving hands of a well-dressed middle-aged couple who had been given the tickets as a gift from their son’s girlfriend. In this case the credit card record on my name prevailed and the couple exited before the curtain went up. Typically New York, always a story.

I miss New York still, but even more I miss the dressing rooms and the chance to dance without being careful of my knees, my hips and most of the other joints in my body. But then, counting from Cleveland Circle, I had 70 years, not bad by any reckoning.

Leanore Ickstadt