It is a delicate task to write about a private person. And Victor Anderson, co-founder of the Shawl Anderson Dance Center, who died on February 7 at the age of 88, was a very private person. When I heard about his death, I knew there would be wonderful obituaries that would honor Victor’s accomplishments and his legacy (in particular, see Victor’s story on the Shawl Anderson website, shawl-anderson.org). These narratives are crucial to making sure that Victor is remembered for his role in modern dance history. But as a long-time member of the SADC community—22 years and counting!—I wanted to find a way to pay homage to Victor’s whole person, with a special emphasis on his relationship to the Bay Area and the legions of dancers who have passed through the heavy door at 2704 Alcatraz Avenue.
I didn’t see Victor much during the last years of his life—he had stopped coming to the studio in the early morning to clean the space and give himself a ballet barre in 2011—but I can still see him behind the desk, standing stalwart, a serene sentinel lovingly watching over the studio. And I feel him every time I come to take class in the quiet undercurrent that runs beneath the center’s hustle and bustle. Victor had a fire in him, make no mistake, but it is his calm, quiet presence that continues to look after the house that dance built.
About six years ago, when Victor’s health declined, the SADC community galvanized to help care for him and maintain his independence. So, in lieu of the traditional biographical obituary, I asked SADC community members to share memories of Victor as a dancer, teacher, and friend. Because Victor and Frank Shawl created a community in the little house in Berkeley, it seemed fitting to allow the community to remember Victor in their own words. Below is, of course, but a fraction of Victor’s friends and fans who have been gathering together in person and virtually to honor his life and work. You can find more or leave your own reflection at shawlanderson.org/victor.
It wasn’t always a smooth ride, but, as I said to Victor the day before he died, we would never have done it alone. I wouldn’t have done it alone, and you wouldn’t have done it alone. It took the two of us to start this place and it’s such a marvelous school, it’s developed so many people as teachers, choreographers, administrators. And just the joy of dancing, all ages, preschool to seniors. It’s part of the community. What more can you ask for? — Frank Shawl
Victor told me that he thought about quitting dance when he was on tour with Call Me Madam [cast by Jerome Robbins in 1950] because when he would stop in places on tour and take local classes, he saw a competitive attitude that he didn’t like. And then he found May O’Donnell through a burlesque dancer with whom he was taking ballet class. Victor was in awe of the loving community spirit that May created. He would reflect on how May’s co-teacher, Getrude Sherr, would say, “Victor, the people that want the competition and the backstab- bing, they don’t stay here because they don’t nd that here.” This kind of supportive community changed Victor’s dance life and is, to me, what Victor and Frank implicitly built into SADC, and what we’re trying to make explicit and cultivate each day. — Rebecca Johnson, SADC Executive Director
Victor took so much pride in really good teaching. Even in the last few months of his life, he would like to hear about whose class I took and how they crafted the class. He was so proud of SADC’s commitment to the craft of teaching. And he was so humble! When we were getting ready for the SADC 50th anniversary, I found the program where he performed with Ruth St. Denis at Carnegie Hall. I was amazed at the thought of him touching history, but he just said, “Oh there it is! Yes, I performed with Ruth St. Denis.” — Jill Randall, SADC Artistic Director
Victor was accomplished enough when he was 18 to decide to become a pianist or a dancer. That was a pivotal time for him and I’m so glad he went towards dance. He loved living in the apartment on Florio Street [built from lumber from the 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island, which Victor attended] and looking down on the garden. I have the most abiding tender memories of him. — Ruth Bossieux, Friend and Dancer
SADC is located on Alcatraz Avenue in Berkeley in a house that used to be a private home. But it started above the liquor store across the street. Victor once told me about how he would look out the window and see a little boy playing the harp in the living room, what is now studio 4. The boy would wave at Victor and Victor would wave back. Years later, that little boy came back to the studio and said, “I used to live in this house. I heard that the people who moved in here were from across the street.” When I was working on a site-specific piece at SADC about how the center had been a private home, I set up studio 4 as a living room. This is what Victor wanted me to know about the building. — Nina Haft, SADC Faculty
There is so much to say and acknowledge about Victor—how he fully embraced life’s offerings, never taking one moment of visits with friends for granted, while completely giving his entire attention to every word spoken, as though it might be the last time. I always found his attention and engagement astonishing and quenching. It was at once simple and profoundly generous. — Ann DiFruscia, SADC Board Vice President
Victor was a great beginning ballet teacher because his combinations were spare and simple, accompanied only by the sound of a beating drum. But he also had an unusually deep capacity for feeling music and being moved by it. He would listen to the Met opera broadcast every Saturday, though he had no tolerance for contemporary takes on classic operas. About one Rigoletto telecast, he told me, “It was set in Las Vegas…in a casino! I just turned the picture off and listened to the music.” — Steve Siegelman, SADC Board President
Victor used to split a bar of soap and put one half in the upstairs bathroom and one in the downstairs bathroom. He did this to make sure we didn’t go over budget. And that frugality is in part why SADC is still here. Whenever I think of Victor, I think of that half bar of soap upstairs. — Katie Kruger, SADC Youth Program Director
I love the story about Country Joe [McDonald, of Country Joe and the Fish], who lived next door to the studio. He was famous for his super long curly hair. Victor had always had really short, cropped hair, but at some point he had decided to grow it out. Meanwhile, Country Joe got a haircut. One day, they passed each other in the street. They nodded at each other in acknowledgment of the fact that they had switched haircuts. — Abigail Hosein, SADC Administrative Director
Victor seemed to always have such a strong sense of self and never let this be compromised. He had recently told me about auditioning for, I believe, Agnes De Mille’s company, and finding her so pompous that during the audition he decided he didn’t want the job. I’m so impressed by his strong moral compass. It seems like he always stayed true to what felt supportive and right for him. I can’t imagine living like that and wish I had an ounce of his courage to do so. — Juliana Monin, SADC Faculty
I first started coming to SADC in 1972. Victor used a modern approach to ballet technique. He always offered a calming presence and that’s important for the frenetic energy that can be in a dance studio. As a teacher he wanted us to get rid of the grunting, to not force it, and the energy was good in the room so you didn’t have to force it. He gave me perspective on why we’re doing all this training: there’s a life flow, a love, an energy, a beauty in it, as opposed to how high is my extension, how high can I jump. — Claire Sheridan, Founder of the LEAP Program at St. Mary’s College
Taking his class as a teenager: his beginning Ballet class was the hardest ballet class I’d ever taken because it was soooo daaaamnnn sloooow — with his round, soft voice and his round, strong drum keeping time as he wandered around the class, “and- a-one, and-a-two, and-a-three, and-a-four….” The slow developes were torture, made you so strong and deeply focused and were, now that I think about it, transcendent. Once he stopped teaching: seeing him at the studio behind the desk every morning after his own solo ballet barre, chatting with him on my way to class about things like Buddhism, the importance of quiet, walks in nature. His warm, impish smile, hands clasped behind his back, like he knew the joyous secret to solitude and peaceful reflection. — Kimiko Guthrie, Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director, Dandelion Dancetheater
Today [the day after Victor died] the house was open, to love and to grief, to memory and always, always to dancing. All of us who gathered, in body and in spirit, by email and phone call and text message, working to share our love and our art, dancing today in the midst of our grief, expressing our gratitude for him and for each other, embodied Victor’s legacy. Victor and Frank taught us to be rigorous with that love, to be open-hearted with ourselves in our work, to see ourselves — teachers, students, artists — as part of an interconnected, loving, laboring, and loving-to-labor system of dance, and of artistic inquiry. — Valerie Gutwirth, SADC Faculty
Please consider donating to the Victor V. Anderson Scholarship Fund at Shawl Anderson Dance Center to help continue Victor’s project to share the joy of dance with future generations.