Her 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.
Guest 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!