The School of Performing Arts, NYC
July 9, 2017
New York’s School of Performing Arts
It is famous now because of the resurgence in interest in the movie FAME, which was based upon the unique idea Dr. Keller had whilst being the principal of what they called a JD ( Juvenile delinquent) school in the 1940s. In those days the Board of Education of the City of New York didn’t know how to handle the kids who cut classes, came late, or were trouble makers, any more than they do now. So they clustered them in one place, as if doing that would solve the problem. It didn’t.
Dr Keller was a musician, an organist, and he saw them as individuals, not numbers…. Musicians are a rare breed, and that man was creative and compassionate.
HIs Assistant Principal was a gentleman named Dr. Paine, also a man of worthy thinking.
More about Dr. Paine later.
Dr Keller wanted to find out why a certain bunch of kids were always late to morning classes, because they were in danger of not graduating. IN those days not graduating meant you went out int the work world without a diploma and dug ditches and paved streets- you did get a councilor and stay in school in the freshman class until you were 21..nope.
So Dr. Keller asked them to come to his office so they could find a solution together. When he asked in his gentle quiet way why they were late and doing so poorly with their learning, they told him they were musicians, and had made a band which played clubs until 3-4 in the morning, in order to make enough money( even though they were underage) to feed their families.
Dr. Keller worked out a schedule for them to come to classes a little later in the day, and told them that for each class they attended and passed, he would teach them how to read music, to compose, to play another instrument and to interpret the language of contracts. The idea of the High School of Music and Art began in that moment. When it came time for them to graduate, with good grades, they did not want to leave.
This worked so well that Dr. Keller was able to turn that school around, by doing the same thing with the art and drama departments, and eventually the High School of Music and Art, and the School of Performing Arts which had a Dance Department, came to be.
Fast forward to my audition to enter that school because Thalia Mara, a wonderful teacher and beautiful dancer was on the faculty. It was a free public high school. Dr . Paine had become the Principal after the passing of Dr.Keller up at Music and Art.
So many of us had never taken an audition for anything before. I was already a working child in the Metropolitan Opera house, contracts and all, so I won’t nervous particularly, but this was outside of what I knew.
The school building was on west 46th street one block from Broadway- right in the heart of the theatre district….. 4 interminable flights of stairs up to the dance department .
We had a ballet class and then a Graham modern class- I had never seen anything like that kind of movement dynamic, and a lot of work on the knees and mine were always tender…however, my enthusiasm must have shown appropriately, I got in, danced first thing in the morning, academics in the afternoons related to the performing arts.
My math teacher is still alive, Miss Shirley Katz , who taught us how to budget a paycheck. Belle Kaufman, of Up the Down staircase book fame, was my English teacher- she taught us how to read and interpret performing contracts. and so on. Every subject was taught in relation too how we would use it. Coming from a Rudolph Steiner background, I loved to learn and read, and although I did not go to my own graduation, I did get my diploma. The reason I did not go— I was already rehearsing for my next job.
During the time I was a student there, Dr Paine agreed to tell me the story of the beginning of the High School of Performing Arts, which I wrote as a paper for a Dance History library in Florida.
20 years or so later, I called the Dance Department head, Lydia Joel, and asked her if I could come to see her, and I told her that I felt that what was offered had been so valuable, that I would like to teach there to pay it back. So she put me on salary, and I had 7 glorious years of teaching every day . Most of “my kids” are still alive and functioning so well in the world, many still dancing, setting ballets, honoring our tradition. Many have gone on to second and third careers as doctors, scientist and psychotherapists, healers, choreographers- you name it. I am proud to be a graduate and proud of them.