The Black Woman Behind HPSD
When her daughters Allyson and Gayle Ratliff were very young, Marilyn Sheperd enrolled them at the Lehnhoff School of Music and Dance, fueling their lifelong love of movement and passion for the arts. After the Lehnhoff School closed its doors, Ms. Sheperd began to look around for other training for her dance-loving girls. She was referred to the School of the Chicago City Ballet, founded by Maria Tallchief, an Osage woman and America’s first prima ballerina. There she met August Tye, a new-to-Chicago dance instructor from Kalamazoo, Michigan. Allyson and Gayle fell in love with August’s nurturing teaching style. When the School closed in 1993, Ms. Sheperd resolved to open another dance school, to keep her girls dancing, and to offer the same high-quality instruction to others. As a member of the First Unitarian Church in Hyde Park, Ms. Sheperd was able to secure space at Woolman Hall, which is now known as Studio 1. Ms. Tye and Ms. Sheperd worked tirelessly in separate roles to bring their project to life: Ms. Tye developed the curriculum and Ms. Sheperd organized the funding, and even painted the studio! Their efforts culminated in the founding of the Hyde Park School of Ballet, with the mission to be a place where any child who wanted to dance would have the opportunity to do so. HPSD was grounded in Ms. Sheperd’s belief that dancing is more than just moving the body – it is an expression of the heart. As a black mother, Ms. Sheperd sought to celebrate diversity in skin tone and body type, making HPSD a place where dancers of all different backgrounds are bound by a shared sense of values. Here, dancers become articulate, socially conscious, and strong-willed community members in addition to receiving world-class technical dance training. HPSD is a family and a tight-knit community, thanks in large part to the contributions and drive of Ms. Marilyn Sheperd.
Marilyn Sheperd Interview By: Maiya Austen, Chandler Patterson, and Taylor Patterson
[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
Maiya: What was your motivation to start the school? Why did you want to be so heavily involved in that process?
Marilyn: As you know, both Allyson and Gayle are dancers and they started out very young at the Lehnhoff School on 57th Street. That used to be the place in Hyde Park to take your children to dance. I always knew that I wanted to expose them to dance. And if they didn't like it, that was fine. I had taken [dance] for many, many years and wanted them to have the same experience. They danced there for probably four or five years. When the Lehnhoff was changing owners, they were both really, really enjoying dance. I thought I would take them someplace else to have another kind of experience.
There was a woman at my church who said I should take them to the Chicago City Ballet, the school that Maria Tallchief founded. That was intriguing to me. Maria Tallchief was fabulous, the first prima ballerina in America and she was an Osage Indian so we also had the notion of a dancer of color. We went to the school and that was my first meeting with August, who was very young and just as sweet as she could be. Allyson and Gayle fell in love with August. I got a couple of other children to come and we had a class of about five kids.
I could see them really thriving with August but I knew she couldn’t support herself teaching five students. I thought I would start my own school. August wanted to stay in Chicago, and so I said let's see if we can pull this off, let’s start our own school. I had to really think, was I really going to do this? This was a huge investment of time, an investment of my soul, and I decided to give it a try. I had been a member of the First Unitarian Church for many, many years and knew that there was space upstairs in Woolman Hall so I thought, well, maybe we could do that. We had to make a decision quickly. August developed a curriculum, and that is literally how it happened.
Chandler: What were your hopes for HPSD when founding it?
Marilyn: When I first started thinking of it, I thought of it as a community. I felt very passionately that it should have the values that I had. I strongly believe that every child deserves the chance to dance if they want to, and that being not able to afford the classes should not be an obstacle at all. Dancing is more than just moving your body and learning the steps. You're not just going to point your toes, you are going to be really changing your heart. You’re going to be exposed to people from all over, and that is what is going to change your heart and cause you to dance. When you dance, it is your heart expressing itself on the outside of your body. I realized that whatever we're putting students through here is magic. Those who come here are no longer just a community, but it really is a family of people. You spend so much time with them, you probably spend more time with them sometimes than your real family.
Taylor: How did the community in Hyde Park influence the founding of HPSD?
Marilyn: Hyde Park has a rich history of honoring diversity and people from all walks of life. There are people from all over the world in Hyde Park. When the Lehnhoff school closed it really left a hole in the heart of the neighborhood, so the school was received with open arms in Hyde Park. It was a good meshing of the values of the Hyde Park School of Ballet, which is what it was called then, and those of Hyde Park. We contributed to the cultural landscape of Hyde Park. We gladly embraced them and they embraced us. We promoted excellence, we produced students who were technically right on the mark, so it fit in beautifully with the University of Chicago. It was really joyous.
Maiya: Your values were involved in the founding of the school. Now as the school is continuing to grow and more people know about it, not just in Hyde Park and Chicago, what are your hopes for the school’s future?
Marilyn: Now I visit the school and think, “Oh my goodness!” I remember our first Nutcracker when it was just a recital of a few of the dances. Back then we could fit everyone who came into Woolman Hall (Studio 1) and still have room. Now when I come back and I see how large it is, I wonder, do we need to get any bigger? Is bigger better? And I don't know.
Also, the world is changing. We now have this group of strong, articulate, socially conscious students and it wasn't necessarily that way before. I think it’s wonderful that there are discussions about how the school can truly serve the people. I would frankly like us to have more of those conversations because no one person has the answer.
I think we need to revisit our mission and ask, “How can we as a school, make something that's wonderful out of that?” I would love to have a huge strategic planning summit or something. I've thought about a new kind of model for dealing with things like all the social issues that are happening. It used to be sort of top down, the administrators were the ones to make decisions. I don't think that's necessarily the best paradigm these days. I'd like to see everybody have a seat at the table, the people who care deeply. I think we're up for it.
Maiya: Thank you so much for that. Did you have specific thoughts or feelings about diversity when you started the school?
Marilyn: Diversity was huge to me and for the First Unitarian Church, which has a tradition of being socially active and pushing the envelope. I saw this family come together, bound together by the values that we talked about all the time. I looked forward to my own children coming out and being shaped by this experience, being socially aware, not only seeing problems, but also finding the answers. That was my dream for the school. And it continues to be my dream.
Chandler: How has diversity in the Hyde Park/ HPSD community changed over time?
Marilyn: Oh, boy, I moved to Hyde Park over 50, 60 years ago, so I've had an opportunity to see it really change. When I think back to the Hyde Park I knew when I was a little girl, I always felt that the conversation about diversity was really driven by the white voices of the neighborhood. Hyde Park has become more diverse in all kinds of ways, not just what color people are; now there is every imaginable kind of variance. That makes for conversations that are at times uncomfortable, at times challenging, or downright maddening. The Hyde Park I see now is its own small city. I love it, but it's not without issues.
Taylor: Did the continued involvement of Allyson and Gayle, first as students and now as faculty, impact your relationship with HPSD?
Marilyn: I think about that sometimes: if Allyson and Gayle left Hyde Park School of Dance now, what would I do? Would my relationship be different with it? I think I would hang in there with it. It's part of my soul, one of those things that identifies me. Frankly, I was shocked, but pleasantly surprised that they both decided to get as involved as they did. I thought it was wonderful. I'd like to think that they see the school as a part of themselves. It’s an investment that you don't easily walk away from.
Maiya: What are your thoughts on diversity in the dance world as a whole right now not just at HPSD?
Marilyn: The world of ballet in general is changing whether you like it or not. Audiences are changing and pretty soon ballet, and dance in general, has got to change, too, or it will die. It will literally die because the days of the white audience that wants to see dancers with the peeled, white apple skin and all of that, those days are going. I think we all have to be prepared to celebrate that change. These issues of today will only be resolved if you really advocate for what you believe in and in what you want. That is what's happening in the dance world. I think it is much too slow, but there's definitely a move in the direction of celebrating diversity, both in body type and skin tone. We're going to be seeing more of that.
Maiya: Thank you so much. Is there anything else you wanted to add?
Marilyn: I have some things to tell you about the history and the heritage,the pedigree, of the school. Certainly having Maria Tallchief in the mix is nothing to sneeze at all about. When we started, I put together the first Board (of Directors) at Hyde Park School of Dance. Not only was it a school founded by a black woman, but one of the other two Board members was black. As we went forward, there were two black women who were making decisions for the School.
Also, when we first came to the Church, Woolman Hall was sky blue. I'm really proud of this: I painted that entire Woolman Hall by myself. Isn't that amazing?
Maiya: I had no idea!
Marilyn: You know how tall those ceilings are and stuff. A friend of mine in the church said, “I can't stand to see you do this. You're going to kill yourself!” He held the ladder for me, but basically, I painted it by myself.
Another thing that I always chuckle about is, we put up barres and the barres wouldn't stay on the wall. It was crazy the things that we had to do to get those barres secure. Finally the church got an engineer up there so they didn't fall out.
I guess the last thing I want to say is that the Hyde Park School of Dance was never about creating professional ballerinas, not ever. There are schools for which that is the objective, but that was never ours. We wanted to send off dancers with something so much more than the technique. Of course, our technique is amazing, but what makes our dancers special is that we go beyond that. You are not only strong dancers -- you're strong people. You're not afraid to use your voice and speak your minds, you feel empowered. The extent to which this school can do that is the best thing we do.
The Nutcracker is also one of the best things we do. I look and I can see it in your eyes. I can see how you feel. And I can feel it just so. That's important.