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Leading Bay Area Dance Educator
August 10, 1928 - February 7, 2017
Beloved dance educator and co-founder of Berkeley’s 59-year-old Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Victor Virgil Anderson died Tuesday, February 7th, 2017 at the age of 88.
A soft-spoken sage with a twinkling sense of humor and a zenlike spirit of modesty, quiet spirituality, and deep communion with nature, Anderson was born in Salt Lake City in 1928 and grew up in Oakland, California.
As a child, he was drawn to music and set his sites on becoming a concert pianist, studying piano, composition, musicianship and orchestration. He started a USO company while in high school, and toured the Bay Area as its accompanist.
Anderson would later recall countless childhood hours spent listening to records and radio, and how, when he was alone, he would let the music move his body through space. “I didn’t think that was anything special,” he would often say with a smile and a shrug. “I thought it was just what everybody did.”
At 18, he attended a touring American Ballet Theatre performance of Antony Tudor’s Pillar of Fire that changed his life. He knew instantly that he wanted to become a dancer, and, despite the urgings of family, teachers and friends, set his musical studies aside and began studying at San Francisco Ballet School and with Tatiana Svetlanova and Dorothy Pring in Berkeley.
In 1950, the 20-year-old Anderson moved to New York, found a cheap basement apartment, and began working nights to pay for his dance training. Within a few years, he had studied ballet intensively with some of America’s most revered teachers, among them Pavlova’s partner, Aubrey Hitchins, as well as Igor Schwezoff, Eugene Loring, Theodore Kosloff, Maria Baldina, and Vera Nemtchinova.
His interest in modern dance was awakened when he appeared with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn in a performance at Carnegie Hall. He soon found his mentor and lifelong muse in one of Martha Graham’s leading soloists, May O’Donnell, who, with another Graham dancer, Gertrude Shurr, had opened a Manhattan studio. O’Donnell had a less competitive, less intense style of teaching than Graham, based on nurturing and collaboration. It was at the O’Donnell studio that Anderson met Frank Shawl, and both men became members of the May O’Donnell Dance Company.
Meanwhile, Anderson found work as a hoofer in several Broadway shows, and, in 1950 Jerome Robbins cast him in the Ethel Merman vehicle, Call Me Madam. He danced in that production throughout its Broadway run and in the national tour, which starred Elaine Stritch.
Inspired by O’Donnell’s example, Anderson began his own teaching career at the Grammercy School of Music and Dance, whose faculty also included such well-known dance figures as Robert Joffrey and Norman Walker.
In 1958, he and Shawl decided to open a school of their own and take the O’Donnell ethos beyond New York. They moved to the Bay Area, where the Shawl-Anderson Dance Center found its first home at the corner of College and Alcatraz, above a liquor store. The modest studio had uneven floors, no single right-angled wall, and a column that shot up through the middle of the room. Classes cost two dollars. Anderson taught ballet and Shawl taught modern for several years, until they could hire their first faculty member, Luisa Pierce, a veteran of the Martha Graham and Lester Horton Companies.
In 1962, the men founded the Shawl-Anderson Dance Company, which would perform to international acclaim for fourteen years.
By 1968, their classes were playing to capacity crowds. As luck would have it, a beautiful craftsman house came on the market, right across the street. Shawl and Anderson mustered their courage and their savings, and took the plunge. The house was completely gutted, reinforced with steel girders, and transformed into four sunny studios. The great modern dance pioneer Charles Weidman was on hand to teach the first class.
Nearly sixty years on, the Shawl-Anderson Dance Center remains one of the Bay Area’s most vital centers for dance training, residencies and performance.
“Victor was a lifelong soulmate, the yin to my yang in life and work,” said Frank Shawl. “We couldn’t have created Shawl-Anderson without each other. He brought the joy of dance to thousands of people, and it’s comforting to know that as the Center moves into its next generations, his gentle, loving presence will shine brightly and show us all the way.”
Anderson is the son of Stewart "Andy” Anderson (deceased) and Arlene Edwards Turner (deceased), and the stepson of Robert B. Turner, Sr. (deceased). He is survived by brothers Bob Turner (Ann) of Pleasanton and Keene Turner of Sonoma; sister Darlene Turner Quigg (Tom) of Sausalito; cousins Arthur Edwards of Placerville, Danny Edwards of Utah, and thirteen nieces and nephews.
A memorial is planned for March 9, 2017. The family asks that donations be made in his memory to the Victor Anderson Scholarship Fund at Shawl Anderson Dance Center.