When celebrated choreographer Twyla Tharp was 12 years old and living in Southern California, she would travel twice a week with her mother from a dusty town in San Bernardino County to the wealth-soaked city of San Marino. There she would study with Beatrice Collenette, a onetime protégé of the great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova who conducted classes in a third-floor rented studio on Huntington Drive.

 

It wasn’t a fancy place, but Collenette had high standards. She strictly maintained the Pavlova technique she had learned at her mentor’s school in London, commanding young students to perfect their pliés and arabesques in an imperious English accent. In those days, the accompanying music was live, courtesy of a blind woman with curly hair who banged out classical dance tunes on an old piano from a corner in the 1,500-square-foot space.

 

Those melodies inspired “a desire to express rhythms and emotions … so of course, I understood that you play and dance by feeling and not by sight,” wrote Tharp in her 1992 memoir, “Push Comes to Shove.”

 

Tharp and I both attended Collenette’s back in the 1950s, but we never met at the barre or in the dressing room, putting on toe shoes. At the time, I was also a student at San Marino High School, feeling “different” from my preppy female peers, some of whom lived in McMansions and wore expensive cashmere sweaters — except, that is, when they were shaking pompoms as cheerleaders for the football teams.

 

At Collenette’s studio, you dressed down in leotards and tights, joining in a democracy of sweat and a shared aspiration to create beauty in motion. If you were any good, you moved up from beginner to intermediate and then on to the advanced class. You made close friends.  Collenette knew each student by name and could reduce you to tears with a few words of reproach.

 

“It’s ugly! All the other girls look beautiful in their costumes!” she exploded when I showed up in a gauzy white dance number for the dress rehearsal of her school’s annual student ballet recital at San Gabriel Mission Playhouse. The seamstress who created my costume had apparently misread Collenette’s pattern and once again I was different from the other girls, an ugly duckling amid swans.        

A month or so later, after discovering a fading ballet master in Hollywood who shared space with modern dance legend Bella Lewitsky, I executed a grande jeté to his frowsy studio and eventually took another flying leap up the coast, performing briefly with the opera corps of the San Francisco Ballet company. After a 10-second solo in “Aida,” I concluded that the shelf life of a dancer was likely to be a lot shorter than that of a writer, and so I pirouetted away from the rarified world of ballet.

 

But I never forgot Collenette as the stern surrogate grandmother who nurtured my love of the art form as a young girl. Looking back, I can see that the discipline she imposed has helped me maintain good posture and physical confidence into old age and kept me a ballet buff in New York. 

 

Collenette was still promoting dance in her wheelchair during her 100th birthday celebration, according to a 1999 article in the Los Angeles Times. She died two years later in San Juan Capistrano, her last stop after moving from “at least” eight other places after she retired and relocated to Laguna, said  her daughter, former ballet dancer and teacher Joan Collenette Damon. “She would decorate the houses and make them better,” Damon recalled. “When everything was perfect — even the trees — she would move on.”

 

Damon, who ran the Collenette school until she retired in 2002, said her mother started working at 10 on the London stage after her father, a physician in Gurnsey, one of Britain’s Channel Islands off the French Coast of Normandy, fell ill and the family became penniless. 

 

Collenette, she said, first studied with Pavlova and then danced with her troupe in North and South America. She also performed in several Broadway shows. Damon said it was during this period that Collenette met her husband, a “dashing” newspaperman whom she married but who later abandoned her “for a woman next door” after they moved to Pasadena. That was where Collenette opened her school in 1926.

 

The Collenette School of Dancing, now something of an institution, is in its 89th year and many of its pupils are currently in rehearsal for the school’s 90th annual ballet show, slated for February 28 at Rosemead High School. Its owner, principal teacher and costume maker is 31-year-old Emily Bratmon, who studied with Damon for 20 years and lovingly remembers the late Collenette as “bossy” and “larger than life.” 

 

Bratmon, who spent two summers dancing with the Salzburg International Ballet in Austria, has maintained Collenette’s adherence to Pavlova’s techniques. “I’ve kept her notes and Joan’s notes and my own and I’m learning as I go along,” she says.

 

San Marino has changed considerably from the WASP citadel it was during my adolescence, and Collenette’s studio has changed with it. Bratmon says her 120 students represent every ethnic group: “black kids, Asian and white.” The white kids, she says, account for 10 to 20 percent of the students. About half are from San Marino and half from other places, some from as far away as Northridge. The age range starts at 3 and goes up to 73. “If you can get up the stairs” to the third-floor studio, she adds, “you can dance.”

 

Bratmon was 23 when she took over the school while it was on the brink of bankruptcy. She notes that Damon and others encouraged her to become the new owner, fearing the studio would disappear altogether. It had closed for a week in 2006. Its previous owner, one of Damon’s students who had bought it from her four years before, was “not a businesswoman and didn’t want to do this anymore,” Bratmon says delicately, declining to name her. 

 

One of Bratmon’s first jobs at the helm was to assume all the payments due and to deal with sharply increasing rents. “They’ve raised the rent by $1,400 in eight years — to $2,100 a month,” she notes. “At first they wanted $3,500 a month, but that was impossible,” she adds, referring to the building’s landlord, whom she identified as Robert Nuccio. “I want to stay in this building as long as I can. I want to upgrade the lighting and put in new barres.” She also wants to work with handicapped students but notes that the studio is not accessible for them now.

 

To keep up with her competitors in San Marino, Bratmon has expanded the school’s repertoire, adding classes in jazz, modern dance and yoga, even hip-hop with taped music. Boys, ages 7 on up, now attend the school, but they all take ballet, a development unheard of when Tharp and I were students, when it was all girls and male dancers were generally viewed as mere partners to ballerinas. All that, of course, has changed dramatically changed in modern dance and ballet. At Collenette’s these days, a single class costs $15. There are two-month packages that bring the price of a single class down by a few dollars.

 

And so another generation schooled in the Pavlova technique keeps an indomitable woman’s name and flame alive, but in different forms. “Owning a dance school is completely different from owning another kind of business,” Bratmon says. “You’re not selling a product. You’re selling yourself, a technique and a tradition.”