The Influential Harriet Hoctor

240px-Harriet_Hoctor_in_The_Great_Ziegfeld_trailerHer complexion was still peach-fresh, her toes curled in a perfect “C” in a pink ballet slipper on the rare occasions that she demonstrated a step. Paradoxically, Harriet Hoctor – or Miss Hoctor as we youngsters meekly addressed here — wore a somber black dress over her stout body, her blondish-gray hair wrapped in a severe tight bun. Added to her mystery were a dozen black and white stage photographs revealing her past – as the stunning ballerina of the Ziegfeld Follies, the ballet star of an early Richard Rodgers musical and a partner with Fred Astaire in the movie musical, “Shall We Dance.”

At twelve years of age I puzzled over the disconnect between those glamorous images and the beloved, but dowdy, matron who headed the professional ballet school I attended in Boston. Besides classes in ballet, toe, toe-tap and modern jazz, other staff members of the Harriet Hoctor School of Ballet offered lessons in speech, acting and song for students intent upon a stage career. With what excitement we occasionally greeted older “graduates” of the Hoctor School — glamorous young women who danced on Broadway, at Radio City Music Hall or on television during their brief visits to Boston to see their parents and reconnect with Harriet. Star-struck, we we often crowded around them, eager to hear their adventures on the professional stage in the Big City.

As a preteen I wondered if I should pursue a theatrical career or concentrate my efforts upon entering college. More immediate were my hopes to qualify for the “line” when I turned fourteen – our shorthand for the Harriet Hoctor Dancers who regularly performed at conventions, galas and large public events in greater Boston. At fourteen my wish came true – Miss Hoctor informed my parents that my dancing was good enough to join her troupe. For the next three years I served as a member of the line, juggling rehearsals, costume fittings and performances alongside the college preparation courses I studied in high school.

During that time, Harriet came into clearer focus for me, a mentor whom I realized was well-spoken, a clear-eyed administrator and a voluntary guardian of her “girls” best interests. “If you want a career on the stage, you must understand that you should not marry – and certainly not have children,” Harriet, who had remained single, advised us. When my parents asked her what direction she thought it best I pursue — the stage or college – Harriet admitted that a dancer’s life was tough and short-lived. Beyond talent, luck was the defining ingredient for stardom. And who, she ruefully admitted, could count on that?

So to college I went. Only years later did I begin to understand the profound influence Harriet Hoctor had on my life. She gave me an appreciation for the arts, self-discipline and commitment to a career where I made words, rather than feet, dance upon the page.

defiant_brides_cover_147_220Guest contributor Nancy Rubin Stuart is the author of the soon-to-be released book, Defiant Brides:The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Women and the Radical Men They Married (Beacon Press, 2013) (a double biography of the wives of Benedict Arnold and General Henry Knox). Stuart is an award-winning author specializing in women’s and social history. She has appeared on national television and NPR and has written for the New York Times, among other publications. Stuart is a board member of the Women Writing Women’s Lives Seminar at the CUNY Graduate Center and executive director of the Cape Cod Writers Center. She is also a Huffington Post blogger.

Win a free copy of Nancy’s about-to-be released book Defiant Brides! Leave a comment here about a woman who inspired you as a teenager, and we will pick one at random on April 3!  Good luck!

Image of Harriet Hoctor via Wikipedia

  • I was three year’s old when Anita Zahn—protege of Isadora Duncan—took me by the hand during one of her classes, and we skipped around the room at the Beechwood Hotel in Summit, New Jersey. I can still remember that glorious moment and soon after, I joined the group. At the time, my mother was the accompanist. I continued to dance with Anita until she left Summit permanently. I was then 13. New York City was her base of operation. She taught dance at the Convent of the Sacred Heart School on 91st Street. When the school couldn’t accommodate her, she would then take her class across the street to the Drawing Room of the Spence School. Then, Fate intervened and I became the Building Manager of Spence, which meant that I was in charge of all the rooms. One day, Anita came to me and asked to use the Drawing Room. How happy I was to be able to do something for her at last. During our conversation, she remembered me; and we remained in touch until she left New York for Oregon where she died at the age of 91!

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