Memories of Miss Irene Hammond by Elisabeth Abrahams

Before Christmas we were sent this wonderful account of the early days of The Hammond School and Miss Hammond.

We moved to Chester from London in March of 1936.  I was four years old.  I remember the excitement of travelling on long a distance train; sitting in a 3rd class compartment and going to the dining car for lunch.  I remember having to sit up straight to reach the table and then as I was eating my soup, my mother saying, “Push the spoon away from you dear. That’s the proper way to eat soup.”  On arrival we stayed at the Grosvenor Hotel and I remember imagining myself to be a very important lady as I walked down the handsome stairway that led from the first to the ground floor.   That was my first encounter with “The Grosvenor” as it was then known but I would visit many times as a dance student.

An advert for the Miss Irene Hammond School from September 1936. Chester Chronicle – British Library.

My mother, a talented pianist, and my grandmother both loved to dance.  So, once we were settled in our new home my mother arranged for me to attend the Irene Hammond Dancing School.  My first memories of Irene Hammond are at the Saturday morning general classes that were held in the ballroom of the Grosvenor Hotel.  The entrance was by the side door, from there you went up a flight of stairs.  As I climbed the stairs I would hear the dance music that would draw me into the Grand Ballroom.  It was large and oblong shaped and definitely a “grand” room.  There were windows and mirrors down one side and a long corridor with a balcony above looking down to the ballroom.  There was a platform with a piano on it and a mirror behind forming a stage at one end.  In front of this stage was where “Miss Hammond” stood.  She was a tall, slender figure with her auburn hair cut in the short wavy fashion of the 1930’s.   She seemed always to be dressed in black and as I recollect wore black shoes with slender heels.

Miss Irene Hammond and a young student in the 1930s.

The classes began with skipping to tunes from the musicals of the 20’s and 30’s: “Jump and jump and swing and swing”.  The swing was with the arms to one side then the other.   The floor was highly polished and springy and after the skipping ropes we did steps: step hop with straight legs in front in; step hop with feet in jete position and changes.  One of my most vivid memories is of Miss Hammond teaching us the polka.  The instruction went like this.  Start with your feet together.  Turn your left foot out and stretch it to the left keeping your heel up to make an arch; bring your right foot underneath the arch (that is the engine going into the tunnel); then step to the left again but the foot is flat this time (that’s the platform); now bring your right foot to your left leg with a hop keeping the right knee turned out (that’s the signal).  So you have step left, right foot closes to left, step left again and hop as you bring right to left with a bent knee.   Now repeat to the other side starting with the right foot, step right left closes right again and hop on the right foot.  So you have the polka sequence – tunnel, engine, platform signal, one, two three hop, one to three hop.

We finished each class by moving round the room doing whatever we had just been taught, maybe the polka, or waltz, a pas de basque or steps of a dance such as the Muff Dance.  I remember Miss Hammond showing me how to bring the muff up to my face “like this dear” as she held the imagined muff up to her rosy cheeks and smiled.   Each class ended with the whole class in unison making a deep, graceful, slow curtsy first with the right leg in front then the left.  Then we were dismissed.

Miss Hammond in the 1930s.

The General Classes were held on Saturday morning at 10.30am, 11.30am and 12.30pm.  The younger pupils went to the early class and the older girls who wore pink dresses with wide skirts went to the 12.30pm class.  I pestered my mother for a pink dress for quite a while, and I remember being mortified by an incident after she had given in and I got to wear my own precious pink dress.  I was coming back up the side stairs to return to my class when one of the fathers stopped me and said, “Your dress is tucked in at the back”.  I had forgotten to do a good job after visiting the toilet in the basement!

General Classes ended with the outbreak of war in September 1939 and my memories later are of the ballet, tap and ballroom classes held in the studio on St Michael’s row off Bridge Street.  There were just two studios the “Large” and the “Small”.  When I think of the General Class teachers who sometimes substituted for Miss Hammond I think of tall, glamorous women like Iris Bond in her greenie brown dress with gold tassels that circled her slim body from below the bust line to her hips.   Mrs Ashworth, tall and imposing with beautiful blonde hair and of course dear, kind, smiling Betty Hassall.  These were not the teachers in the Studio.  There the most outstanding was Miss McBurney, slender in her austere black dress, precise and strict as she taught plies, battments and porte de bras.  I remember going to the ballet classes after attending school, and frankly being less enthusiastic about them than I had been about the Grosvenor classes.  They were hard work, but they gave me a thorough grounding in the basics of ballet technique that have lasted me all of my life.  Miss Hammond taught us the dances we learned for the Royal Academy of Dance exams that took place in the spring each year.  For Grade 2, I remember learning the Sailor’s Hornpipe.  She explained that deep pliés were important to mime the strength for the pulling movements of a ship’s ropes.  They were hard those deep pliés.  For Grade 3 the dance was the Highland Fling.  Miss Hammond stressed we had to be very precise and accurate with our footwork because we had to imagine we were dancing between the blades of crossed swords.

Then there was the Concert which is my final memory of Miss Hammond as she chose me to be the “girlfriend” in a short dance called, “Gossips on the Green”.  I was to dance and flirt a little with my two boyfriends who were Nancy Davies and her sister.  As a threesome we polkaed across the stage and then I was left to sit on a bench while my two boyfriends engaged with a nursemaid pushing a pram and others who were out walking on the Green.  They returned to me for the final dance.  Again, Miss Hammond empathized that I had to laugh and smile facing the audience as I danced between the two young “men”.

At 12, I was sent to boarding school and I danced only occasionally until after I graduated college.  Like many well educated young women in those days I then did secretarial work.   But, I did not find my passion until I decided to teach.  During teacher training in a class on Philosophy of Education I learned that I would only be a good teacher if I taught what I loved.  I did not love typewriting, short hand and office work.  I discussed this with my professor who asked me what I did love.  “Dance” I replied.  He transferred me from the Commerce to the Liberal Studies Department.  This set me on a path to teach dance.  I taught ballroom classes to teenagers in the early 60’s (before the Beatles) and modern dance in evenings to adults. Later in the early 70’s after a broken marriage I taught Movement and Dance to Physically Handicapped and Emotionally Disturbed children in London.  This is led me to want to study dance as a Therapy, which I knew I could do in the United States.  In 1975 after two years of study at University of California in Los Angeles I had an MA in Dance Therapy.  I met and married a psychoanalyst, Joe Abrahams, and have spent the last 40 plus years in California.  The dancing classes of my early childhood years at the Irene Hammond School in no small way impacted the destiny of the second half of my life.

I owe a great deal to you Irene Hammond, thank you.

Thank-you so much for this wonderful account Elisabeth.  See the following links for a two part interview of Elisabeth from 2014.