Elizabeth Herring teaching dance at the St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center.
They enter the large, multi-purpose room at the St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center dressed in yellow sweatshirts and matching pants, wearing tentative looks on their faces. It’s unclear what these four African-American young women, all teenagers, have done to land in detention, but each will stay here until her court date. In the meantime, there is schoolwork to be done, appointments with counselors and ballet class with Miss Elizabeth.
For the past decade, Elizabeth “Bunny” Herring, who is 88 years old, has been volunteering with Prison Performing Arts (PPA), a non-profit that involves incarcerated youth and adults in the performing arts to enhance intellectual and personal development. PPA is the recipient of a PNC Project Grant from the Arts and Education Council and a tenant in the Centene Center for Arts and Education.
Herring has been teaching the weekly ballet class through PPA the last three years. “I really love being with the girls. It’s the most fulfilling work I know,” she says before her 45-minute class. “It’s really not about them becoming dancers. Many of them have been abused and have a diminished sense of self. Through ballet, they can take ownership of their bodies, be proud of themselves and carry their heads high.”
On this Friday afternoon, Herring first shows the girls a video performed by Dance Theatre of Harlem, which was in town in November 2014 through Dance St. Louis, another A&E grantee. Then she leads them to a makeshift ballet barre to take them through the paces – first position, second position and so on, all the time checking their posture and form. After, she challenges each to make up a few steps of her own. The tentative look returns to their faces, but eventually they succumb. In fact, they seem to enjoy waving their arms midair and moving their legs across the floor. As they dance, Herring provides positive feedback.
“Volunteering with Prison Performing Arts is the most fulfilling work,” says Herring. “I see wonderful results as to how performing arts can change people for the better. It helps them to get in touch with their creative side and blossom. It’s a very, very wonderful thing.”
Rachel Tibbetts, director of education at PPA, explains ballet is just one of several arts programs through the organization’s Learning Through the Arts initiative, where local artists mentor youth at the city detention center in music, dance, opera and theater.
“The young people get to work with professional teachers and performers, which really helps them learn through the arts,” says Tibbetts. Other PPA youth programs include the “Hip Hop Poetry Project,” which provides intensive performance arts programming during public school breaks at the detention center. The goal is to have each youngster spend every day of the project in classes, workshops and creative activities; it culminates with a student poetry performance.”
Before ballet, Herring taught poetry to at-risk youth and shared the stage with convicts in other PPA programs. She also tutors at the detention center. Dance, though is a natural for Herring, who tries never to miss her weekly trapeze class at the City Museum with Circus Harmony, still another A&E PNC Project Grant recipient.
“I decided I would do a trapeze act to celebrate my 80th birthday,” said Herring, a stunning wisp of a woman who moves with grace. “Pushing yourself to stay fit and doing things to help others, why that’s the greatest thing you can do in your life, especially in old age.”
Herring grew up in St. Louis, attended Mary Institute and an East Coast boarding school, and then studied ballet at the American School of Ballet in New York City. The plan was for her to dance professionally, that is, until, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus came calling.
“They were looking to recruit professional dancers and I had always loved the circus,” Herring recalled. “There were many girls who tried out. I auditioned and was one of 60 who were hired as dancers.
“That was terribly disappointing to my father,” she continued. “He wanted me to go to Vassar and marry someone from Yale.”
Herring spent three years as an elephant and horse rider under the big top. She left to marry Skyler “Swede” Herring, a cowboy whom she met while on a family vacation out West. The two moved back to a farm in Pike County, Mo., had four children, lost one, and were married for more than 50 years – Swede passed away in 2005. Today, Herring has five grandchildren, all of whom, most likely, think she is the hippest grandma around.
Let’s face it, how many grannies do you know who received their bachelor’s and master’s degrees after the age of 60, hang by their knees and ankles from a trapeze, sport several tattoosand have written a book about their life?
Then again, that’s part of what makes Herring so dynamic and relatable. She doesn’t believe in the word “can’t” as the girls in detention have come to find out.
“Oh yeah, Miss Elizabeth is cool,” says one. “Her class beats playing cards upstairs and pretty much anything else.”