When Frank and Victor Met May

How a modern dance choreographer in New York shaped a school in Berkeley

By Cheryl Ossola

Fifty-one years: It’s a respectable age for a dance school. That kind of longevity usually means that the teaching comes from the heart, and that’s certainly the case at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, a community school on the border of Berkeley and Oakland in California. It’s also proof of one teacher/choreographer’s long reach—in this case, May O’Donnell, one of Martha Graham’s shining stars, who died in 2004 at age 97. She touched school owners Frank Shawl and Victor Anderson so profoundly that they invoke her teachings, influence, and memory nearly every time they talk about dance.

Shawl and Anderson set up shop in 1958, in a south Berkeley studio above a liquor store. Fortunately, they were teaching only adults, so the less-than-wholesome location didn’t send anyone scurrying away. The curriculum was modern dance and their survival was tenuous. But today the school is a much-loved part of the community. One could argue that 77-year-old Shawl’s sunny persona and 81-year-old Anderson’s gentle dignity have played important roles in the success of their school. But it’s likely that the larger reason is their devotion to dance and philosophy of teaching, which came straight from O’Donnell.

Shawl-Anderson Dance Center turned 50 in June 2008, and Shawl (right) and Anderson celebrated with a gala in September of that year. (Photo by Rob Kunkle/Goodlux Photography)

Shawl-Anderson Dance Center turned 50 in June 2008, and Shawl (right) and Anderson celebrated with a gala in September of that year. (Photo by Rob Kunkle/Goodlux Photography)

Fifty-one years ago, these partners in dance never imagined that they would one day own a nonprofit school like the homey, bustling Shawl-Anderson Dance Center. In addition to classes in modern dance, ballet, and jazz (42 for adults and 35 for children each week), the school provides budding choreographers and artists in residence with rehearsal space and a performance venue. Dancers from companies ranging from Doug Varone to Mark Morris to Pina Bausch offer master classes, and there’s a teen pre-professional modern-dance program with a performing ensemble. Adult classes in Pilates and Lifelong Movement round out the offerings.

Most mornings, if you poke your head into one of the studios, you’ll see Shawl smiling his way through a ballet class. After barre, chances are he’ll slip out to handle administrative tasks in the glorified closet that serves as an office. Several mornings a week Anderson mans the front desk, his serene air a foil to Shawl’s chatty enthusiasm. (But get him talking and you’ll find that he’s got just as many stories.) They seem like a system of checks and balances, one tempering the other in a partnership that gives the school a feeling of warmth and generous spirit.

Flash back to the 1930s and ’40s and you’d see Shawl growing up in Hawthorne, New Jersey, a one-cinema town with New York City a glamorous temptation in the distance. Across the continent, in Oakland, California, the young Anderson, a Utah transplant, was making his first forays into dance, studying ballet in Berkeley with Dorothy Pring.

Shawl began studying tap at around age 5 and loved it. But even though he spent hours at the movie theater watching Fred Astaire and other stars of Hollywood musicals, he had never thought about dance as a career until he saw a Broadway show. “That’s when I realized there were people making their living dancing very near where I was living,” he says with a laugh. “People could do this!”

After he finished high school, Shawl was working in his uncle’s office when he saw an ad for an audition at New York’s Roxy Theatre. They were looking for tap dancers. “I went and I made it,” he says, sounding surprised all these years later.

The grueling gig threw Shawl into four or five shows a day, seven days a week. Being around other professional dancers, including fellow cast member Lucas Hoving, made him realize his limitations. “I was earning a living as a dancer and couldn’t believe how much I couldn’t do,” says Shawl, who had never studied anything but tap. “I wanted to get good training so I could get other jobs. That first audition was like a fluke, a stroke of luck. I had to continue to study.”

When he asked the Roxy dancers where they took class, “one of the dancers said, ‘I’ll take you to a place where you can get your class and never miss a show,’ ” Shawl says. The year was 1950 and the school was the O’Donnell-Shurr Modern Dance Studio. “May [O’Donnell] had a company—Gerald Arpino was dancing there, and Bob Joffrey. And Gertrude Shurr was with her—she was also in the Denishawn company. So they joined forces to start a school. They had professional classes for all the dancers, even the American Ballet Theatre dancers.”

Shawl, compact and wiry, immediately fell in love with modern dance. “I was overwhelmed at how marvelous it was, and so difficult. [O’Donnell’s style] was Graham derived, but much purer, more lyrical. She used contraction and release, but it wasn’t quite as stylized [as Graham’s]. And so when choreographers saw people trained by May, they thought they had lots of ballet training, which maybe they didn’t; they were very adaptable.”

Modern dance was a goldmine for Shawl, who craved constant new challenges. He says he loved “the range, the unlimited vocabulary; it was less codified [than ballet] in some ways. And yet I love ballet; I take class five days a week because I love the strength it gives me at this point. But earlier in my life I wanted a different kind of body range, body vocabulary. It was like another language. I think studying different styles is like broadening your language skills.”

Over the course of his 11 years in New York, Shawl danced with O’Donnell’s company and studied with José Limón, Pauline Koner, Charles Weidman, and Martha Graham. “[Graham] asked me into her company after the third class,” says Shawl. “She said, ‘Where are you from?’ The minute I said [I trained with] May O’Donnell she smiled. When Martha saw someone trained by May, her eyes lit up.” Shawl found a niche dancing on TV too, spending six and a half years with various shows in New York and Los Angeles, including CBS’ Shower of Stars and the Perry Como, Red Skelton, and Tallulah Bankhead shows.

But in L.A., something was missing. “I didn’t have the satisfaction of studying in Los Angeles like I had in New York,” Shawl says. “I missed my teachers. So I said no to everything and went back to New York with no job. I went back to May and real deep work.” And when he returned to O’Donnell’s company, Anderson was there.

The tall, slender Anderson didn’t dance a step until his late teens. A piano and composition student, he thought he was going to become a professional musician. “Then I went to the ballet and I saw Tudor’s Pillar of Fire,” he says. “When Nora Kaye did a contraction, I felt it viscerally, all the way up in the balcony.” After that, he ushered for dance performances at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. And when a young girl he met there suggested that taking ballet would increase his appreciation for what he was seeing, he went to Pring’s classes in Berkeley and his life changed.

Like every aspiring dancer in the 1950s, Anderson moved to New York City, where he performed Jerome Robbins’ choreography in Call Me Madam and danced in Alfredo Salmaggi’s operas. But he had never taken modern dance until a ballet classmate’s sister, who told him he should broaden his base, sent him to O’Donnell.

Anderson’s first impression of O’Donnell made quite an impact: “She was seated on a little bench and there was a drum. This woman had tremendous power and energy and movement coming out of her—and she was just sitting on a bench!” Within a few years O’Donnell asked him to join her company.

So when Shawl returned from L.A., the two men started talking. Anderson, who was teaching at the Gramercy School of Music and Dance with Norman Walker, wanted to leave New York to start a company and school. Knowing that Shawl was interested in teaching and choreographing, he suggested that they team up and move to California; with so many established teachers in New York, he argued, starting a school there would be a tough sell.

Envisioning a student body in New York that consisted of “a handful of friends,” Shawl agreed that relocating would give them the chance to “get our own identity.” In teaching, he says, “you learn your creative voice, your teaching style. I was one of those natural dancers who took a lot for granted. When I taught, I had to analyze; I had to transfer and think about movement, create, rather than just do it. And that opened so many doors for me. I never taught the same class twice. I would take some material and build on it; even my warm-ups would change.”

But things in California got off to a slow start. The modern classes the men offered to adults didn’t cover the $100 monthly rent for the studio, not to mention an apartment. They began teaching children, at community centers and Ys, and found that they loved it. So after three or four years of struggling, and with their savings nearly gone, they began offering classes for children. “That’s when the school started to earn its way,” says Shawl.

Victor Anderson’s first impression of May O’Donnell made quite an impact: “This woman had tremendous power and energy and movement coming out of her—and she was just sitting on a bench!”

When a two-story Edwardian house across the street from the liquor store came on the market, Shawl and Anderson saw their chance to build on what they had begun—and without leaving their community. They gutted the building to create two sunny studios, later adding two more. During the renovations they held classes in the new school’s anteroom. When the school formally opened, in 1968, Charles Weidman taught the first class.

The two men quickly found their own roles. Shawl handled most of the business and taught the modern classes, while Anderson taught ballet. Today, 34 teachers handle the school’s curriculum.

In the Shawl-Anderson Dance Company, the two men were equal partners. “He did his pieces, I did mine, and we danced in one another’s pieces,” says Shawl. “And we had guest choreographers. We had Lester Horton; we had several of May O’Donnell’s pieces; we had Rina Shahem from the Batsheva company. We had a good repertory, but we were always in everything. We were the only two male dancers we could be sure of; the others we had to train.”

Shawl’s constant need to learn, to experience new ways of moving, colored the company and shaped the school. “The technique I developed over the years was a clean one that could jump into many different styles. I was very cognizant of variations of the way you do something. If somebody wanted it that way, I did it that way. If somebody wanted it this way, I did it this way. Undogmatic, and I think that’s what we brought here [to Berkeley]—work that was unmannered but adaptable to all different styles and encouraged people to do any style they wished.”

Though Shawl-Anderson Dance Center dropped “Modern” from its name several years ago, modern has always been the heart of the school. “I think if it’s taught properly it should give youngsters a sense of ‘this is demanding and has to be given your fullest awareness and attention,’ ” Shawl says. “You can’t just play at it; it’s deep work. But it’s fulfilling and you should never take the joy out of it.”

O’Donnell’s influence on the two men shows most strongly in the feeling of community they foster. “May was very soft-spoken, with a gentleness and sweetness,” Anderson says. “There was a wonderful atmosphere in the studio, and Frank and I loved that because we’d both been in studios where it was very unpleasant, the competitiveness and intrigue. That impressed us, and we wanted that same kind of atmosphere.”

“If someone who was new to class did something beautiful, all the [O’Donnell] company members applauded,” says Shawl. “It was so encouraging. That was the environment she had there and we have here. We all are doing something that’s a part of a passion.”

After 13 and a half years, Shawl-Anderson Dance Company folded, but the school endures. It celebrated its 50th anniversary in June 2008, and later that year Berkeley’s mayor proclaimed December 16 “Shawl-Anderson Day,” acknowledging the school’s contributions to the community.

In no small part the school’s success can be chalked up to love. “Teaching was a joy, and when I jump in now it’s still a joy, because you never lose those skills,” Shawl says. “One thing I loved about May—she would see potential in people beyond what they ever imagined they had. She nurtured us, but she always said, ‘It’s not about you; it’s about the work.’ It’s about the dance and what you can bring to it, and your integrity, your love of it. You become not just a dancer but an artist. And that made a tremendous impact on me. She was a marvelously wise woman. She was one of those exemplary people who had no ‘stuff.’ It was pure love. And you pass that on.”

Anderson sums it up: “There would be no Shawl-Anderson if we hadn’t known May O’Donnell.”