Who Was Gail Grant?

We know her indispensable ballet dictionary—but do we know her?

by Karen White

After Cassandra Macino closed her long-running studio, she decided—as many owners do—to accept a teaching job at another studio. On her first day, she noticed copies of Gail Grant’s Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet on a table around which several young teachers sat. “What do you have there?” she asked the teachers. One responded, “We read this like it’s the bible.”

“Oh my,” Macino recalls saying. “Gail Grant was my teacher.” Her statement was greeted by stunned silence.

The teachers were no doubt shocked—after all, Grant’s reference book is so familiar to dance educators that it’s commonly referred to by the author’s name alone, as in, “Hey, do you have your Gail Grant?” Battered copies sit in educators’ dance bags the world over, at the ready to settle a dispute or provide a spelling. Meeting someone who knew Grant herself? Why, you’re one degree away from true ballet celebrity.

But there was probably another reason for their reaction. Unlike most great ballet authorities and educators—Suki Schorer, for example, or Violette Verdy—Grant is known for one thing: words on a page. There was no luminous professional dance career; no crowds of devotees flocking to weekly classes in New York City.

So who was Gail Grant? Not much info is easily available, and what’s out there seems too ordinary. Perhaps surprising to private studio educators, she owned a studio and taught ballet—in Toledo, Ohio. That’s where Macino first met her, around 1963, when Grant approached Macino’s father and asked if she could rent the then-empty space next to Macino’s Shoe Repair.

“My father called me on the phone and said, ‘How would you like to take ballet lessons?’ I said no. I was taking piano and didn’t want to do ballet. But my father said, ‘You’re going to,’ ” says Macino, who was 9 at the time.

Many years later, Macino was taking class in New York when her teacher, the great Chuck Kelley, told students, “We’re doing it this way because this is the way Gail Grant says it’s to be done.” After class, Macino informed Kelley that Grant had been her teacher. “Oh, what an icon,” he replied. “A legend in her own time.”

Future ballet dictionary author Edith Grant (second from right) with The Geraldine Foley Dancers in The Waltz in Purple, Winnipeg, 1929.
Photo courtesy Dance Collection Danse

 

Pursuing the dream

According to numerous documents from Dance Collection Danse, an organization dedicated to the preservation of Canada’s theatrical dance heritage, Grant was born Edith May Grant on January 31, 1910, in Regina, Saskatchewan.

Grant’s early years were documented in Moon Magic: Gail Grant and the 1920’s Dance in Regina, a now out-of-print book published in 1992 and written by Karen Rennie Stewart (who died in 2014). In the book, Stewart, who personally interviewed Grant, tells of Grant’s stage debut at age 6 in a production mounted by a traveling dance teacher, and her later appearances in shows (which she also choreographed) at a local theater owned by the father of her best friend, Nancy Graham.

Around age 14, Grant opened her first studio—in her attic, complete with ballet barres erected by her father—and within eight years grew her school to an enrollment of 150. She had amassed a library of dance books and earned a diploma from a $75 dance technique correspondence course based in Chicago.

During the 1930s, Grant’s professional career included jobs at New York City’s Roxy Theatre and with Radio City Ballet.
Photo by Dimitri Vladimiroff, courtesy Dance Collection Danse

In 1927, Grant was crowned Miss Regina—although that wasn’t her fault. In The Modern Girl: Feminine Modernities, the Body, and Commodities in the 1920s, author Jane Nicholas explains that in those days, women were entered into beauty pageants without their knowledge. Grant competed despite her reservations, and upon winning, said, “I don’t want it. Give it to the next one.” She only agreed to compete for Miss Canada when she was told she could take ballet lessons while she participated in the national pageant in Vancouver.

In 1927 her family moved to Winnipeg, where she began intensive ballet studies with Geraldine Foley, a graduate of the Italia Conti Academy of Dance and Theatre Arts in London, and got a job as a solo dancer at the Metropolitan Theatre. Summers she traveled to New York City for more training. Grant returned to Regina and ran her Studio of Dance for two years before handing it off to her friend Nancy and heading to New York City.

A job at the Roxy Theatre led her to a company position with the brand-new Radio City Music Hall Ballet Company. At both theaters, Grant worked with Florence Rogge, the Radio City Ballet Company director who would be credited with presenting ballet aligned with American (rather than European) tastes, and Leon Leonidoff, a ballet master and theatrical producer who would become known for his lavish productions. (He’d go on to create Radio City’s famous “Living Nativity” Christmas show.)

Sometime while dancing with the Radio City Ballet from 1932 to 1937, Grant took the advice of her fellow dancers, who felt the name “Edith” lacked requisite stage glamour, and changed it to Gail. In 1939, she married Walter John Ryan.

According to DCD, Grant’s post-Radio City career included choreographing shows for Leonidoff, such as the Canadian National Exhibition Grandstand shows in Toronto from 1948 to 1951. She and her husband, who would edit all three editions of the dictionary, moved to Toledo in 1958.

 

Passing it down

When Macino met Grant, the dictionary author was in her early 50s and had taught for a short time in downtown Toledo before opening the Gail Grant Theatre Ballet studio. Grant invited her advanced dancers to swim at her apartment building’s pool, and Macino remembers walking wrapped in a towel through Grant’s dining room and spying illustrations and papers spread out across the table. “I’m working on my dictionary,” Macino recalls Grant saying.

Grant was working on revisions, adding about 100 terms, improving phonetic guides and illustrations, and alphabetizing the version first published in 1950. “I spoke with Arnold today. I asked him questions,” Grant would say, referring to Arnold Spohr, artistic director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, a close friend who would visit Grant at her Toledo studio.

Studio dance moms arranged a book signing at Toledo’s Inverness Club in celebration of the dictionary’s 1967 second-edition release. Grant’s mother, who sewed the students’ tutus, made Macino a drawstring dance bag sporting an image of the leaping ballerina that appeared on the book’s blue cover.

Every year, Macino says, Grant would attend—and sometimes teach ballet at—the Dance Congress of America in New York City, an annual weeklong teachers’ workshop run by Grant’s friend Lucille Stoddard. Macino and other students sometimes went along to teach parts of ballets that Grant had choreographed: Fox Hunt, Raymonda, Paquita. “Everything about ballet was pretty new in the U.S. Gail was on the cutting edge,” Macino says.

As a teacher, Grant was strict. “She wouldn’t mince words,” Macino says. “She was a tough cookie. She was always insistent that we keep our weight down.” Once, Grant’s frustration at one student who missed a mandatory rehearsal led her to snatch the record off the record player and smash it on the floor.

Grant welcomed guest teachers—Macino remembers Vaganova lessons with a Russian ballet master—and Suzanne Farrell scouted Grant’s students for Ford Foundation scholarships to the School of American Ballet. (Macino, who won SAB scholarships every year from the ages of 12 to 17, also studied at American Ballet Theatre, Harkness House for Ballet Arts, and Joffrey Ballet.)

A program cover announces Edith Grant’s second annual student recital, held on April 27, 1931, at Regina’s Grand Theatre.
Photo courtesy Dance Collection Danse

One day, Grant told Macino that she, her husband, and her mother were moving to Florida, and said, “I want you to take over the school.” Macino agreed, and in 1972 renamed Grant’s school the Cassandra School of Ballet.

Macino ran her Toledo studio for 44 years, closing in July of 2016. Her students had worn costumes made by Grant’s mother for Grant’s studio all those years before, and danced Grant’s choreography from notes that Macino had faithfully written down. “My whole life changed the day I met her,” Macino says. “She brought me this beautiful art form.”

In 1976, Grant moved to Florida, where she continued to teach until age 77. Old friends Arnold Spohr and Nancy Graham Caldwell visited her there, as did classical ballet educators who sought out Grant’s wisdom and insight. One such educator was Mme Peff Modelski, who wrote a letter to thank Grant for her dictionary and was thrilled when the author responded with a personal invitation.

“She was so vital and full of life, a master of detail,” says Modelski, who at the time of her 1987 visit to Grant’s Florida home was teaching students at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts and professionals at Steps on Broadway. “She sat with me for hours with the book. She had a custom-built barre in her room and she put her leg up on it, and her leg was straight. She said, ‘It doesn’t hurt, because I know what to do.’ ”

 

A treasured legacy

Grant died in 1999 in Texas, where she was living with a niece.

Modelski has “tremendously lovely memories” of her time with Grant, and says that Grant’s dictionary—“this little tiny book with the beautiful explanations”—is a treasure. “I love her language” in the dictionary, Modelski says, praising the book for pointing out differences in the Russian, Italian, and French ballet technique styles, and for detailing not only what a step is, but how it should be done.

“Dancers would call me in the middle of the night from Japan: ‘I’ve lost my double tours.’ But the words, and how to do it, are in her book,” she says.

“This is the one book I fall back on. It is the foundation for my teaching approach—it allows me to be flexible, and gives me credibility when I need to be firm. When I go to the other side, this is one of the things that I’m taking with me.”

 


When studying for her Dance Teachers’ Club of Boston certification in ballet, Dance Studio Life editor in chief Karen White memorized the entire Gail Grant dictionary. (Well, almost.)