June is the traditional time for many things, from weddings to graduations. It’s also the month of recitals. After a year of study, it’s time to show off what you’ve learned, be it music, recitation (hence “recital”), or some other skill. In that spirit, and in honor of my readers about to embark on a spring recital – or with fond (?) memories of recitals past – here are a few items related to The Dance.

“Mrs. L.N. Vassilief and her Ballet Dancing Class invite you and your friends to the Recital, Given at the Rockville High School, June 7th, 1924.”

Ludmila Vassilief can be found in the 1930 census, along with husband Leonid and daughters Tatiana and Irene, living on the “Darnestown Pike” (Route 28). Both the senior Vassiliefs were born in Russia, and emigrated to the US in 1916. Mrs. Vassilief was almost certainly training her students in the Russian method of ballet, today known as the Vaganova school and one of the more popular styles of classical ballet in America.

Appearing many times on the program are the Hasselblatt sisters, Nelly and Tamara, who were also born in Russia. In 1920 they were living with their parents and siblings on a farm in Hunting Hill, outside Rockville on the Darnestown Pike. By the 1930 census Tamara Hasselblatt Dmietrieff, “music teacher,” was lodging with the Mann family in DC. As for her piano pupil, Catherine Dawson (#3 in your program), the Dawsons lived between Rockville and Hunting Hill on Route 28. We have a copy of Catherine’s 1922 diary, and Tamara is mentioned several times; she was giving French lessons to the younger girl at the Hasselblatt home. (Catherine also practiced her piano diligently, at least according to her diary, and apparently it paid off: a solo in the recital!)

As of now, this little program is the only evidence of Mrs. Vassilief’s dance school that I can find. Jumping ahead twenty years, a number of dance schools can be found in the 1949 Rockville (And Vicinity) Directory, neatly sandwiched between Dairies and Dead Animal Removal (!) – click to enlarge and read:

I realize that these blog posts often get very detailed on the people history (hey, I’m an anthropologist at heart) and a little light on the artifact history. Let me redress that with a little pointe shoe.

(Seriously little: it’s only 7 inches long.)

Though a staple of classical ballet today, pointe or toe shoes are not as old as the dance itself. Marie Taglioni, a celebrity ballerina in 1830s-40s Paris, brought what was previously a momentary trick – rising all the way up to your toes – into the mainstream, and only then were shoes designed to facilitate this style of dance. By the early 20th century the modern, stiffened-box shoe was in place.

This pair of shoes belonged to the donor (now a Montgomery County resident) in 1932, probably in Wyoming or Colorado; she was four years old at the time. The scuffs and stains show that they were really worn, not just a cute prop.  Thanks to the interior label, we can see that the shoes were patented by Barney S. Bonaventure of New York in 1925. In reading his patent application for a “new and useful Toe Slipper,” I can appreciate the thought he put into making a more comfortable, flexible pointe shoe (having worn them at times myself). There’s nothing said about making them available to toddlers, but it’s probable that in the 1920s, teeny tiny pointe shoes were to be expected. Today, however, the majority of teachers in the various schools and traditions of ballet suggest that students wait until the bones in their feet have finished growing, and until their strength and technique is sufficient to support them (often around 12 years old). Pointe is no joke!

If you’re interested in the history of pointe work within the ballet world, there are some additional links below.  Interested in the history of dance in Montgomery County?  Come help me do some fun research!

An overview of the use of pointe technique throughout ballet history –

A 2011 argument for viewing pointe shoes as “technological artifacts” –

And some famous ballet shoes at the Bata Shoe Museum.