The Little House on Berkshire
The Texas Story Project.
When I recall dance school days, I silently thank my mother for the time and effort she put into getting me to dance school several times a week, the many shows and recitals, sewing costumes, and doing much more as a “stage mom" in the 1950’s and 1960’s when I was a child growing up in San Antonio. I never gave up my love of dance and, though I considered majoring in dance in college, I chose another path but I still dance now in my senior years at a center that has a dance based exercise program.
Long before aerobics and other forms of exercise became popular with women I'd put on my old leotards and tights, while first baby slept, to stretch and do plies and different dance moves that a stranger walking in on me in the early 1970's would have thought rather odd. After the birth of my second and third child, I went to a nearby dance school which offered a ballet/exercise class. Occasionally I took a tap dance class but it was ballet I loved. Aside from the physical demands, I was attracted to the element of concentration required and the serenity I felt after each class. The classes didn't last long after I moved to another neighborhood and soon many women had succumbed to going to the gym. I went back to a dance school for a short time but, in some ways, it was far removed from the dance school of my childhood and teenage years. It was there, though, where I still could feel the magic, experience a fantasy, and hear the beautiful French ballet terms. While I stretched at the barre and did the dégagés and plies, my mind wandered back to another time and place.
Dance school in the 1950's and early 60's was in an old frame house situated on a tree lined street called Berkshire Avenue on the south side of San Antonio. The house was near my parochial school and I could walk there after school when I got older. It was a house filled with special sights, sounds, and smells. In this house lived and worked a wonderful lady with no college degree in dance; someone who had never married and lived with her elderly parents. She was born in Torreon, Mexico and had spent some time there as a child with her family because her father was in the silver mining business. She seemed different from our moms and classroom teachers and was rather eccentric and very theatrical...she was my beloved dance teacher. Her name was Jackie Flanagan and her dance school was called Jacqueline School of Dance. She was a very small lady and bemoaned the fact that she had to take child parts when she was on stage in New York. She had a very strong opinion on everything and seemed very worldly wise and was my hero for a period of my life. Not only did she have a very demanding and what seemed to be an erratic life style at times, she epitomized "the theatre” in my young eyes. She instilled in her students the desire to be good dancers and, indeed, we were made to feel that we were destined for dance greatness. I can only imagine what our mothers thought when Jackie encouraged us older dancers to go some day to New York or Las Vegas. This in the days when girls were ONLY encouraged to become either a secretery, nurse, or teacher!
In recent years I have come to fully appreciate the long hours we spent practicing and rehearsing for various productions like the Dance Fete during Fiesta in San Antonio, shows at the Tuesday Musical Club, at the military bases, and various other locations in the San Antonio area…the recitals at the Municipal Auditorium (now the Tobin Center), our "stage moms," and the many hours of battling over the costumes most of which were truly spectacular. In those years, the costumes were hand made and not ordered. Moms even sewed sequins on many beautiful and creative costumes. More elaborate costumes were sewn by a dressmaker. I recall that records were used for some of the shows but often a live orchestra was used for the dance schools during the Fiesta Fete at the auditorium. I fondly think of the old house that would vibrate with dancers' leaps and let in cool gentle breezes through open doors even in the stifling heat of our Texas summers. The smell of rosin, the old classic dance prints on the walls, the jangle of many bracelets on my teacher's and her mother's arms, the sound of Jackie's castanets that helped us keep time and proper beat, the occasional gentle but firm touch of a cane against the dancer's leg for correct position, the humorous display of outbursts and arguments between my dance teacher and her mother concerning the piano accompaniment (sometimes ending with the record angrily being put on) are memories that still linger.
I loved stories Jackie shared about her dance career and the shows she had performed in on stage in New York and the people she knew. Some were quite famous. She knew Hilo Hattie (so we had to learn Hawaiian dances) and once she had Nico Charisse (husband of Cyd Charisse) come to our dance school to teach a ballet class. These experiences went beyond real school; dance school was better than new dresses and school events and boyfriends sometimes. If for some reason my mother was not sitting in her usual place with the other mothers and had been unable to pick me up on time due to work, it was then that I was aware that my dance teacher led a somewhat normal existence. She actually found time to eat! The dance school was her home.
The front of the house comprised the studio with the usual full length mirrors, barres, and wood floors. Adjacent to this was another room with the piano, chairs for mothers, and an office with the desk for the business matters of running a dance school. It was here where the poor over worked mother and pianist of my demanding dance teacher tried to keep all tuition accounts in order. These two rooms were not divided by walls or glass viewing areas as seen in so many modern dance schools today. The back of the house, where the living quarters were, seemed to be an off limit area. Except for the bathroom and water fountain in the hall, I never saw the rest of the house except the kitchen where I visited my dance teacher as an adult. On that one occasion when my mother was late picking me up, I was invited to dinner. Jackie and her mother set up a card table right in the studio and we had a huge well prepared meal. Dancers can and do eat a great deal of food...I was thrilled! I imagine that I must have met her sister but I only recently read a memorial about her on the internet. She was in show business as well and had been a “Champagne Lady” with the Lawrence Welk orchestra and made appearances on the television show in later years. In the memorial it described how, when she was younger, she was a popular vocalist in World War II and sang at the Majestic Theatre in San Antonio. Dorothy Jayne Flanagan took the name Jayne Walton when she did radio appearances around the country. According to the memorial and Wikepedia, my dance teacher’s sister recorded the song Maria Elena with Lawrence Welk and it was certified gold. If I ever saw her at the dance studio, I suppose I just don't remember and didn’t realize what a talented family the Flanigans really were.
At some point during my high school years I must have come to the realization that the world of dance would not be the type of life I would lead. For whatever reason, be it talent or desire, I never considered at that time to become a dance instructor much less taking off for New York, Las Vegas or Hollywood. Looking back, I cannot recall any of us who had such serious or idealistic aspirations. Maybe we didn't talk about these dreams. Maybe some of us did fulfill all or part of those dreams and my teacher was finally rewarded. Old loves linger, though, and this small part of my life remains a part of me forever. Years ago in a long forgotten autograph album that girls sometimes kept in the 1950's and 60's I found an inscription from my former dance teacher. She had written something about my "perseverance" and I know now, of course, that without perseverance there can be little success in life for any goal. I loved the ending of the inscription the best: "Dancingly Yours" and her name. If I recall correctly, even the handwriting seemed to dance across the page. I learned that my dance teacher died many years ago while I was busy with my life in another city. As is often the case in life, we fail to express our feelings to those who made a big difference in our lives while they are still living. However, in tribute, I would like to say that for wherever you may be dancing now, dear teacher, I will be in sweet memories and gratitude...DANCINGLY YOURS!
Sherrill Pool Elizondo graduated from Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State) with a degree in English and Education. She is a sixth generation Texan and interested in genealogy. She’s been an aspiring writer for over 35 years and is the proud parent of three sons and has six talented and remarkable grandchildren who now all reside in the state of Texas. Some of her stories can be seen online at Boomer Cafe, 70 Candles, Grand Magazine, and Texas Escapes. Texas Escapes published her account of the time she spent as a United States Pavilion guide during Hemisfair’68 in San Antonio. She was born and raised in San Antonio and has lived most of her adult life in the Houston area and now enjoys another home in Rockport, Texas. She is still interested in dance and has been dancing since the age of 5.
Posted December 16, 2019