In the interest of full disclosure, I was neither a fan nor a good fit.
I speak of Isabel Whaley Sloan’s ballroom dancing school at the old Columbia Woman’s Club on Blossom Street – known to all adolescents who attended, in an attempt to learn the social graces, as simply, “Mrs. Sloan’s.”
Now I am sure my long-standing angst with the dancing school has everything to do with the annual Costume Ball always held on an October evening.
While many students of the gentler sex arrived in charming outfits like flirty flappers, prim nurses and pretty princesses, my mother – dear, departed but slightly off-key when it came to things like this – sent me to the ball as Johnny Appleseed. I wore tattered overalls and a checked shirt. I had a knapsack on the end of a pole and, literally, to top it all off, I wore, in strict compliance with Appleseed lore, a kitchen pot on my head.
So, while I do not mean to digress about the damage this did to my young psyche, I do mean to tell you that a book is being penned about Mrs. Sloan’s.
Its author, Columbia writer Rachel Haynie, is in special need of photos of the place.
“I realized the book needed to be written when two architectural icons related to Mrs. Sloan’s ‘reign’ over Columbia society were in transition, reminding those who had known her of her deep influence,” Haynie said.
“At almost the same time, her family home – what contemporary Columbians recall as the Dunbar Funeral Home (on Gervais Street) – was beginning to be restored by the Children’s Law Center. Across the street, the University of South Carolina School of Law was making way for construction of its new facilities, which meant razing the former Workshop Theatre and the site where her studio had been for many years. These marks of progress put Mrs. Sloan back on the lips of an amazingly large contingent of Columbians.”
Sloan died in 1991, at the venerable age of 93. Her obituary noted that she “taught social graces and dancing lessons to four generations of children in Columbia.” She also held dances for soldiers who were stationed in Columbia during World War II.
Sloan was a regal woman who, on class nights, wore swishing, chiffon dresses and high heels dyed to match the color of those dresses. She used a silver whistle to wrangle her gaggle of gangly adolescents into something resembling an organized ballroom dance. She blew this whistle with special verve when directing young female dancers, who were seated on one side of the ballroom while waiting to be chosen by boys seated on the opposite side of the room, to “Cross your ankles, girls!”
Sloan’s longtime dancing partner was Simpson Zimmerman Jr.
“The girls found (and still find) him elegant and looked forward to their turn on the dance floor with him,” Haynie said.
“The boys say he was an impeccable role model, and they felt he always ‘had their back’. They would look to him if they didn’t know what to do and he would help them figure out any social situation.”
Like, I suppose, how to dance with a girl who is wearing a kitchen pot on her head.
“I’ve been told that taking these classes cemented friendships that are still viable,” Haynie said.
“I’ve been told of the confidence they engendered – how to respond in any social situation, even if the dancing lessons, per se, didn’t stick…Stories being gathered include first crushes, a few boys and girls who met there and became enduring couples, some near-mischief that was nipped in the bud (usually outside, sometimes in the boys’ room)…as one articulate former student put it, ‘It was the continuity of this thread that made the experience so valuable to us. What I experienced was almost exactly what my father experienced. And then my son.’ ”
“The values conveyed in her classes did not waver,” said Haynie, who is reaching the end of writing the book and who may be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
“What I need now…(are) pictures…The release date of the book will be determined by how quickly those pictures come in. I am told by the new owners of the Big Apple, Richard Durlach – who was a student of Mrs. Sloan’s, and his partner, Breedlove – that we will be able to hold a re-enactment of the dance classes in that significant space at the time the book is released.”
I, for one, will be sure to put my dancing shoes on.
Oh yeah, and a pot on my head.
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia in the early 1960s. She may be reached by emailing email@example.com.