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Reflections Of A North Country Girl At Heart


EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an occasional column contributed by Ogdensburg native Marguerite (Peg) Cordwell Brown about her memories of growing up in St. Lawrence County. Peg, daughter of Vivian and Benjamin Cordwell, worked as a reporter for The Journal while she was a college student in the 1960s, and currently lives in Rhode Island where she is the director of development for Button Hole Golf Course and Learning Center, Providence. She hopes her column will serve as a reminder of a kinder, gentler time in the north country. —— ——

Using the term “studio” might be a bit of a stretch. It was actually a rather shabby one-story building almost directly across from Notre Dame Church, complete with those deep rose-colored asbestos shingles, and a haphazardly built entrance way that never did receive a coat of paint. But for many aspiring to a role in one of those 1940s musicals, it promised a chance to be a star. The studio was a long and narrow room lined with mirrors, with the prerequisite ballet bar, anchored by a small coat room at the entrance and another small room that served as an office—I’m sure there was a bathroom, but I don’t recall ever using one there—probably because it was too difficult to take off the leotard and tights that we were all required to wear.

There were two more constants—Ruth Dumas, owner, instructor and taskmaster always dressed in pale pink leotard, tights, a short dance skirt tied around her waist, and “grown-up” flesh colored tap shoes with heels—and Charles—long suffering pianist for all classes, every day. Charles was a bit of a character, short, stout, glasses, with rolled up shirt sleeves, and pants that were always too long. Charles was physically disabled, had extraordinary patience, and never seemed to tire of playing the same notes for our routines.

The majority of us started at age six or seven and took both tap and ballet (jazz came later) in classes of 15 or more. A few of the very talented or those with more resources took private lessons. We moved from shuffle-ball-change to first position at the bar without a lot of grace, but with dreams of the big stage.

And that big stage—George Hall Auditorium—became ours once a year for two nights in June in a recital, complete with make-up, sequins, satin and tulle—two evenings that every father in Ogdensburg faced with dread—including my own! The highlight of the evening was at the end of the second night when Miss Dumas’ students performed “The Big Ballet”—one act from a major production like Giselle or Swan Lake (well, maybe not Swan Lake!) Being chosen for the “Big Ballet” was almost as big of a deal as getting twin-tone tap shoes or being allowed to wear those black fishnet stockings. All three indicated that you had indeed arrived.

I’ve mentioned before that I was a bit chubby. However, because of my longevity at the studio (I took dance for 10 years), I think Miss Dumas took pity on me and put me in the chorus for the big ballet one year (along with Mary Alice Grotkowski, Gail Hall and Ann Armstrong—I picture I plan to bring to the reunion). My costume was a very tight white satin bodice, trimmed in royal blue sequins, with a long white tulle skirt sprinkled with blue sequined bows. I remember trying on my costume for Dad as I knew he would never last through a whole night, and he asked me what I was supposed to be. Assuming my best ballet stance, I replied, “I’m a snowflake.” Dad, never to be less than direct, replied: “You look like the whole damn snowstorm!”

The studio did produce some stars. The tap queen in my era was Anne Sharrow—I think Anne and her family were from Morristown, as she was not a student at OFA. But the person that put stars in my eyes was Dickie Sias—a rather (in hindsight) geeky red head with glasses who had tap dancing feet that were rumored to be insured by Lloyds of London. I have always been moved by really talented people—and Dickie moved me right into a huge crush, even though he was years older. I remember standing in the front of 800 Franklin Street one late spring night and Dickie rode by in a convertible, dressed in a white sports coat and a pink carnation (straight out of the Mary Robbins song), on his way to the junior prom. I was one very sad adolescent.

I contributed to Miss Dumas’ retirement (or rather my parents did) until I graduated. I never gave up my secret hope that the Rockettes would change their requirements and permit someone shorter than 5’7” and 100 pounds to join that high-kicking chorus line. I will confess I went to the Rockettes Christmas Show last December—they clearly haven’t loosened their requirements—but I still buy patent leather shoes!

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