News & Politics

Shirley MacLaine Makes a Surprise Visit to the Washington School of Ballet (Photos & Video)

The Oscar-winning actress says she got her start there in the 1940s.

Shirley MacLaine in a studio at the Washington School of Ballet today. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

Less than a full day after being lauded in a packed Opera House as one of the Kennedy Center’s annual honorees, hometown girl Shirley MacLaine appeared Monday at a modest Northwest Washington dance studio where her path to fame began.

The Oscar-winning actress, singer, dancer, and author visited the Wisconsin Avenue home of The Washington School of Ballet, a warren of rehearsal halls she once attended daily, starting at age 11 as a young dancer from Arlington, where her father was the superintendent of schools.

For an attentive group of young dancers and staff, most of them half her age or younger, MacLaine, now 79, recalled her daily journey in an awesome display of memory that was as charming as it was uniquely DC.

“You know W&L High School, over there in Arlington?” she asked. “That’s where I went to school. I would get on the bus after school, really every day. The Lee Highway bus, or Wilson Boulevard if I went home first. Get on the bus, go to Roslyn, Clarendon, cross Key Bridge, into Georgetown—which was the ‘dope alley’ of the country at the time, really rough—and then get on the Wisconsin Avenue street car. There was a street car! I would come up Wisconsin Avenue and I’d get off at Porter—this is Porter?—and come here every day.”

The trip, she said, took about an hour and a half. After that it was rehearsal, and then home again. She said it was the early development of a work ethic that she’s never given up.

MacLaine’s visit to the school and Washington Ballet headquarters was something of a surprise, cooked up Sunday night at the gala honors event, and therefore many of the ballet dancers—who were having a day off—were not at the school. Word got out, though, and slowly they began to drift in through the glass doors of the building and into the lobby where MacLaine stood reminiscing about her teachers and mentors, Lisa Gardiner and Mary Day, who founded the school in 1944.

Back then she was Shirley Beaty, a name that was changed to MacLaine for Broadway, just as her younger brother, Warren, changed his last name to Beatty for his acting career. He won a Kennedy Center Honor in 2004.

As much as MacLaine wanted to talk about the past, she was eager to walk the hallways, climb up and down stairs, poke around the old building, even visit the still familiar dressing rooms and bathrooms. “I remember this,” was repeated as often as, “This is how it used to be.”

But she was impressed with the new, large dance studios (The facility has doubled in size since her day.) “This is better than New York,” she said.

Behind her, the crowd grew until eventually she was leading a parade of young dancers, who trained their cameras, cell phones and iPads on the living legend. She wanted to know where each dancer was from and as she heard their home addresses—Cuba, Puerto Rico, Baltimore—she said “incredible.” For each she had a handshake and a smile.

MacLaine told them it was at the Washington School of Ballet that her mentors told her she should pursue a career in acting rather than ballet. “They said, ‘You think too much, you should go into acting.’” She followed their advice, went to New York, got cast in the chorus of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, and was on her way to eventual global fame.

There was virtually no mention of her role in the British TV sensation, Downton Abbey, possibly because her small Monday audience was aware of what she’d said over the weekend at the Kennedy Center event: “My life as a professional was etched here in the Washington School of Ballet but now everyone wants to know about Downton Abbey, never mind the last 60 years.” So, they focused on the last 60 years.