By ERIK HESSELBERG, Special to the Courant
August 4, 2014
– In a leafy woodland setting by a lake, the Noyes School of Rhythm carries on a 95-year-old tradition. During their stay each summer, ladies discard their confining contemporary clothes, slip on diaphanous tunics and assume Greek names like Pegasus, Selene, and Persephone.
"We sometimes compare the [Noyes School] to Brigadoon," says Carol Ribner, a New York City school administrator who has been coming to the summer dance retreat since 1982. "The world around changes, but this place never does."
The land that time forgot is a 100-acre farm nestled in the Portland woods near the Great Hill Pond. On the property stands a handsome saltbox with pegged beams and wide chestnut floors, built before the Revolutionary War by a prosperous farmer named Shepherd, who had nine daughters.
The school's founder, Florence Flemming Noyes, a contemporary of Isadora Duncan, christened the Portland retreat "Shepherd's Nine" farm, and in the 1920s began teaching women a liberating technique of dance and movement still practiced today.
Rhythm Director Emily Mott, known at camp as Pegasus, first came to Shepherd's Nine farm as girl with her mother, Martha Mott-Gale. Her grandmother and great aunt before her were also summer visitors.
"Part of the beauty of the place is that generations have been coming here so the place is full of these wonderful memories," Mott says.
Meg Brooker, an associate professor of dance at Middle Tennessee State University, says she feels something of a novice, with only 10 years at Noyes.
"When I first started coming here, I would sleep the whole first week," said Brooker who also serves the school's archivist and unofficial historian. "People come here tired, but soon find that energy which allows inspiration to take over."
For Mott, inspiration comes from being immersed in nature. Campers live in tents on platforms perched on a wooded hillside. "At night you hear coyotes and owls," Motts says. "It's wonderful."
A path through the woods leads to the lake, where there is swimming and boating and archery. The ringing of a bell summons campers to communal meals in the farmhouse, and the ladies in gossamer tunics dine at long tables brightened by carafes of wildflowers.
The emotional center of the Noyes camp is the Pavalon – a columned pavilion open at the sides with a hardwood floor worn smooth by generations of dancer's feet. Here, women from 16 to 90 years old, whirl to the music of a grand piano, seeking to regain their natural sense of rhythm and become more in harmony with themselves and the world.
"I think the closet friends I have in the world are people that I have met here," says Ribner, who goes by the name Selene, "Goddess of the Moon."
Florence Noyes, like her contemporaries, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, saw movement as way to free women from Victorian constraint. "In the beginning, the whole focus was to release women from the bounded corsets and to get them strong," Mott says. "Mrs. Noyes also speaks of eliminating self-consciousness and repression."
Brooker, who has been researching Noyes, said the dancer studied at Emerson College, where she was influenced by the teachings of the French musician, François Delsarte, who developed a hugely popular system of gestures to convey inner thoughts and emotions. These highly stylized movements also influenced Duncan and modern dance pioneer, St. Denis, who with her partner and husband, Ted Shawn, started the famous Denishawn School of Dancing in Los Angles.
Though a classically-trained dancer, Noyes was something of a social reformer who believed art should serve a practical purpose. An early crusader for women's rights, the dancer joined 8,000 suffragettes for the famous march on Washington on March 3, 1913, the eve of Woodrow Wilson's presidential inauguration.
The procession of suffragettes through the streets of the Capitol, past angry, jeering crowds, culminated in a "tableaux" on the steps of the U.S. Treasury Building. Here, Noyes, draped in the American flag and wearing breast armor and a Roman centurion's helmet, portrayed the part of "Liberty."
But it was not until 1919 – 41 years after being drafted by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that Congress submitted the 19th Amendment for ratification. That same year, Florence Noyes purchased the Portland farm on Penfield Hill Road that would become the Noyes School of Rhythm.
"Part of what Mrs. Noyes intended with this camp was to create a space for rest," Brooker says. "An arts retreat is something of an escape from the disorder of life. Noyes believed that it is in that space that one finds a universal rhythm."
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