Mary Walters Petricoin ’63, Phoebe Neville ’63, and Joan Morgan ’63 recall where their love of dance has led them.
By Coleen Dee Berry
This story is dedicated to the memory of Mary Walters Petricoin ’63 who passed away March 4, 2022. We send her family and friends our deepest sympathies and condolences.
In 1959, three young women arrived at Wilson with one driving desire – to pursue dance as a career. Mary Walters Petricoin ’63, Phoebe Neville ’63, and Joan Morgan ’63 may have listed their majors as English and fine arts, but to dance was their shared dream.
Many colleges at that time did not offer a degree in dance, and Wilson was no exception. But Wilson had Orchesis. Since the 1940s, the College’s extracurricular dance ensemble has encouraged students to learn about and participate in various dance forms.
“Even though Wilson was small, she still created an environment where dance flourished and inspired,” Petricoin said. “After all, the College hired Fran Bowden, a great teacher, and provided a lovely space where we were able to practice and dance. Wasn’t Wilson really ahead of her time?”
Orchesis gave students then, as now, a chance to work with visiting artists, attend national dance workshops, experiment with choreography, and gain experience in lighting, sound, and costume design.
Neville, Morgan, and Petricoin bonded over their enthusiasm for Orchesis. All three faced the same obstacle to their dreams — the traditional mid-20th century expectation that marriage and family must come first for women. A college degree was fine; work in an approved “feminine” role as a teacher or a nurse was acceptable. But the pursuit of an artistic career, especially in an experimental field such as modern dance, was not encouraged.
“I never felt as real or as free as when I was dancing. It clearly resonated with me and guided my life,” Morgan said. “Family restrictions and expectations tried desperately to steer me away from dance, but somewhere deep inside, there was a driving force that kept coming to the fore. I call it my pilot light, and I struggled to keep it lit!”
Through Orchesis, the three took classes at Wilson with visiting artists, such as José Limón and Daniel Nagrin, and attended out-of-state dance workshops. Inspired by these learning experiences, the three friends then made three very different decisions to follow their dreams. Only Petricoin graduated with her class in 1963.
In 2020, Neville, Morgan, and Petricoin reconnected to talk about their lives and where their love of dance led them. Due to COVID-19, most of their conversations took place via email or by phone.
“What we have accomplished is important to communicate — it just might give somebody the courage to take their own leap!” Neville wrote to Morgan. “What happened to us at Wilson was important and made a MAJOR difference in our lives, even though we ended up leaving the College… I’m fascinated that we did something so similar and yet so different.”
These are their stories:
Phoebe Neville the Professional
As a child growing up in Swarthmore, Pa., Neville played the cello until one summer she attended a music camp and discovered dance. “That was it for the poor cello!” she recalled. She later spent three weeks at Jacob’s Pillow, the internationally renowned dance school in the Massachusetts Berkshires, where she watched the modern dancer Daniel Nagrin perform. “What I wanted to do, without knowing it, was revealed to be possible,” she said.
As a child, she was also troubled by a subluxing patella and had her first knee operation before attending Wilson. But that did not stop her from dancing. And while she enrolled in Wilson as a fine arts major, her main interest quickly became Orchesis.
“And then it happened,” Neville said. In 1960, Fran Bowden, the Orchesis instructor, engaged Nagrin to give a master class and performance at Wilson. “For me, it was beyond a dream come true — like God coming to campus!” Neville said. After Nagrin’s interactive class and performance, Neville went backstage “to gape at him as he hugged the stage crew,” she recalled, “but then he saw me, [with] a piercing gaze, and pointing at me, said, ‘You’re good!’ I nearly fell backwards down the stairs.” A week later, she received a letter from Nagrin inviting her (subject to an audition with his wife, Helen Tamiris) to apprentice with their new dance company in a Maine summer workshop.
That summer, according to Neville, was a baptism by fire, as she was surrounded by professionals and experienced apprentices. She attended another Tamiris-Nagrin workshop over the Christmas break in New York City and “subsequently found myself trailing to New York whenever possible. This wreaked havoc with my grades,” she said. By the summer of 1961, she decided to leave Wilson for an apprenticeship with the Tamiris-Nagrin Company in New York City.
With the guidance of Tamiris, Neville created a dance composed to “The Banshee” by Henr y Cowell. “It was about a night bird flying, and took place in one place and on one leg,” making it easier for her to perform with her bad knee, she said. The dance was accepted for the first Clark Center Young Choreographers concert in May 1962, and Orchesis invited Neville back to campus to perform the dance.
Her apprenticeship with Tamiris and Nagrin ended with her second knee operation. From there, she danced with groups such as Studio 9, the Judson Dance Workshops, and the Dance Theater Work-shops. While with Dance Theater, Neville’s choreography began to catch the eye of the New York City critics. By 1975, Neville had her own dance company, which performed for almost two decades.
One New York Times critic noted, “Phoebe Neville is almost a throwback to another, more quietly disciplined age. She works patiently and intensely, bringing forth her jewel-like dances in the fullness of their time, without hurry and hoopla.” Another wrote of a performance of her company in 1987, “Some choreographers crowd their dances with steps, yet fail to make an impact. Phoebe Neville, in contrast, measures her choreography. Each of her dances contains only a few carefully chosen movements. And each has its own distinct personality.”
In order to support her dancing, Neville worked for a time as an artists’ model and then taught dance, first at the Barlow School, a progressive school in upstate New York, in 1968, then at the New York University School of the Arts, Bennington College in Vermont, and UCLA.
Neville became interested in body-mind centering in the early 1970s after hearing a lecture by Andre Bernard on “The Kinesthetics of Anatomy.” Ten years later, after a third knee operation, she became a certified practitioner and teacher of body-mind centering and a registered somatic movement therapist.
As her dance company came to an end, Neville entered into another adventure. “In 1991, I began improvising with musician/composer Philip Corner, an old friend from the Judson Church days. After he retired and moved to Italy, he invited me over — and I learned how to dance after a full Italian lunch, with children, with dogs, and on hilltops,” she said. “We discovered that we travel well together, which took us around the world — so I married him!” The couple lives in Reggio Emilia, Italy.
Joan Morgan the Arts Administrator
Growing up in Westfield, N.J., enabled Morgan to take advantage of the close proximity of New York City’s artistic scene. After studying piano, she began dancing as physical therapy at age ten after fracturing seven vertebrae slipping on a bathroom rug. The dancing “changed my life… or perhaps allowed me to find it,” she said.
Like Neville, she enrolled at Wilson as a fine arts major, but her main interest was Orchesis. In her junior year, modern dance choreographer José Limón taught a master class at Wilson, and Morgan decided to follow his teaching. That led her to enroll in the 1962 summer program at the American Dance Festival, held at Connecticut College in New London.
“I got to work with Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, and José Limón — it was just heaven. I knew what my path had to be,” she said. “I had to leave Wilson, so I auditioned for Julliard.” She spent two successful years there before being sidetracked by a case of the mumps. “I was quite ill, which set me back a lot, and then I ran out of money and support, and I had to leave. Trying to stay with dance became a tremendous struggle, and I had no one to encourage me, no one to support me. I lost the energy to fight to try to stay, and I had to give dance up.”
But Morgan found an alternative outlet to dance when she took an administrative job at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City, exchanging dance for the visual arts. “The best thing about working there — I worked with extraordinary and incredible people. All the staff were interesting, and some were artists themselves.”
Morgan spent ten years at MOMA, first in membership and hospitality, then in the museum’s education department, preparing materials for school use and touring exhibits. She became the staff union president and then chief negotiator when the staff went on strike in 1973. “I was incensed about the way MOMA treated women on the staff. The pay was terrible; there were no benefits,” she said. “The pay issue was something that definitely was not right, and I wanted to fix it.”
During her time at MOMA, Morgan worked closely with Dr. Josephine Harris at Wilson and received an undergraduate degree in art education in 1974 . Like Neville, she became interested in integrative mind-body somatic therapy and spent seven years working on a master’s degree from NYU. “I had to take one course at a time as I was raising my daughter,” she said. As part of her project thesis, she formed the Life Alliance and Psychotherapy Center for codependent women in New York City, which she operated for several years.
In 2000, Morgan became director of records and registration at Mannes College, The New School for Music, and after 15 years at Mannes, worked as The New School’s associate university registrar. She retired in 2016 and moved to Redmond, Wash., to be close to her daughter.
Living in New York City for most of her life meant Morgan could take dance classes and attend performances — including some by Neville — to keep in touch with her first passion. “If it weren’t for Orchesis and Wilson, I would have never gone to the dance festival, and I would have never applied to Julliard. I would have never had those experiences, which have stayed with me my whole life,” she said. “Wilson is where it all started — where I found that dance is my pilot light.”
Mary Petricoin the Teacher
A self-described Army brat, Petricoin said participating in folk dances in the Philippines at the age of five triggered her love of dancing. She went from folk dancing to ballet, with a short detour into Flamenco dancing when her father was stationed in Texas. “It would be at Wilson that I first began modern dance,” she said. “I went from toe shoes to no shoes and loved everything about it.”
Petricoin wanted to pursue dance as a career but was limited by finances. After her father died while she was a teenager, she was on assistance through the Veterans Administration, and the program would not cover dance classes. Through Orchesis, “Wilson gave me the chance to dance and still get my degree,” she said.
In the summer of 1962, Petricoin joined Morgan at the American Dance Festival in Connecticut. “I actually did not have the money to go and was despairing,” Petricoin said. “But the father-daughter organization that was at Wilson fostered me and raised the money for me to go. It turned out to be the highlight of my dance life!”
Every morning at the festival, “I woke up and first thing went to a class where I learned how to teach children to dance,” she said, something that she made use of in later years. She audited an advanced class in choreography by Louis Horst. “It was a turning point for me — I learned how to construct an effective piece… And I took a class in Jazz under Alvin Ailey but was taught mostly by Donald McKayle. What an experience that was!”
Back at Wilson, Petricoin was able to submit dances she had choreographed in place of required papers in several of her English literature courses. One piece was based on Shaw’s “St. Joan,” which she was invited back to Wilson to perform with Orchesis in 1965.
After graduation, she married and raised a family — but dance remained in her life. Besides taking classes for herself, Petricoin began teaching dance, including creative dance for children through the Maryland parks and recreation system. This reconnected her with her Wilson Big Sister — Janice “Jay” Johnson ’61. “Jay was working with the Northwest Settlement House in Washington D.C., and her son was about two at the time. She was looking for someone to do creative dancing with preschoolers in her program,” Petricoin said. “I loved working with the kids. I wanted to stay and teach, but the program lost funding, and it came to an end.”
After the sudden death of her husband in 1985, Petricoin went to work in a federal credit union, and it became her career for 27 years. “Often, I reflect on my years at Wilson in dance and theater and wonder how I became an IRA expert… Completely unexpected, I had become a banker,” she reflected in her Wilson 50th reunion biography. But she adds, “My love of dance will always be a part of me. I was still taking ‘ballet for those over 40’ classes until just a few years ago.”
In the fall of 2019, Petricoin found herself scrolling through Wilson’s website in anticipation of her sister Sallie’s 60th reunion. Photos of Orchesis dancers in the Hankey Center for Women’s History’s archive sparked her curiosity about her two classmates. And so she reached out to Neville and Morgan.
At first, the three planned to meet, but COVID intervened. The three then began a lengthy email conversation. Morgan transcribed the emails and condensed 90 pages of conversation into a 20-page document, which she gave to the Hankey Center.
Amy Ensley, director of Wilson’s Hankey Center, said the conversation will be added to the center’s digital exhibits section on “Alumnae in Dance.”