To get to The Carr Sisters School of Dance we had to take, from our house, a bus, which we caught at the bottom of the slag hill, then a streetcar from the intersection near the Westinghouse plant, to Braddock, where we got off on the main street below and climbed several blocks up the brick and tree-lined streets to the dancing school, to the house. I say “we” but it was “me,” “I,” that made this trip several times a week from the time I was eight to maybe sixteen.
My sister went to dancing school some years, and some years she didn’t want to, although I can recall standing with her, our little suitcases in hand. Maybe it’s because she, an old woman now, too, has recreated the scenes. “Do you remember standing at that roadside alone for the streetcar? Wasn’t it dark? Wasn’t it lonely? How could mother have let us do that?”
I widen my eyes and shake my head. I’ve no idea. “Times were safer then,” I volunteer. Now that I think about it, my mother probably saw us—or again me—as capable. My sister was three years younger and, as I said, in and out of dancing school. Or maybe my mother was saving the carfare.
The Carr Sisters School of Dance was run by two of the Carr sisters—the oldest, Marguerite, whom we called Margie, who was thin and had a pointy chin and curly light hair and who always wore black trousers that draped and a black top. She had skinny legs, she told us; she never wanted to be in tights. The youngest Carr, Audrey was shapely and cute and wore tights and dancing outfits. Audrey taught acrobat or ballet, but mostly Audrey played the grand piano for our exercises and our routines. Between Margie and Audrey were about six or seven other sisters, none of them affiliated with the school, but whose pictures, with those of their brothers, adorned the vestibule. “The Train of Carrs” the captions read of old news clippings, of the dancing family: 7 girls, 3 boys, all lined up in stages and dressed alike. Sort of Vaudeville, I guess.
The school was in an old Victorian—a place so grandly different from our own tiny house—that we were happy to be there. One had to walk up a sidewalk from the street; there was a gate or iron fence around the house. The front porch was broad and held two large swings at either end, those wicker sofas suspended from chains. Inside the door—a glass insert, like Tiffany—was a small hallway, a vestibule, with Audrey’s desk, (we paid Audrey; she kept the books) a fireplace, a small sofa, a table. It was elegant, even there. Behind the vestibule was a dressing room—a room surrounded by sofas where we changed our shoes and left our coats.
If we had to go to the bathroom we mounted the great curving staircase that separated these two rooms to a bathroom larger than our living room at home. Some of the family (Margie? Audrey? Who knew?) lived in rooms up there—off that hallway—up more stairs, but we knew we weren’t supposed to go exploring.
The dance studio itself was the conversion of the house’s parlor and dining rooms that made up the rest of the first floor. It was all mahogany and high ceilings and mirrors and windows, the grand piano at one end; the barre along another. The floors were wood and there were pocket doors. Audrey hammered out the exercise music on the piano, which I can still hear in my head, while we did warm-ups. Margie was skilled at tap. Their belief was that one had to study it all and so we dance students went twice a week, alternating between tap, which I loved, ballet which was pretty, and then, when we got older, toe, which I was never good at, always being heavy, and acrobat, where I watched the lithe gymnast types effortlessly do their backbends, their splits. I struggled.
But I stayed with it.
My Dad had once gone to school with Margie or one of the Carrs, the reason he thought of the place when I asked, at six, for dancing lessons. We lived closer, then, and then we moved to the place that necessitated all the traveling.
There’s a certain irony to the elegance of this school, to the discipline and love that came from it: it was located in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a town so dilapidated it almost fell off the map when the steel mills closed.
My husband once sought me out while I was cooking dinner. “Hey, Hon!” he called. “Come here! There’s a show talking about revitalizing Braddock. Didn’t you grow up around there?”