By Janice Llanes Fabry
Valentine’s Day may not be a children’s holiday, but nothing warms the heart like the sight of a little girl in a sweet dress waltzing with a dapper little boy. Barclay Classes, which has become a Rye institution, has been teaching children ballroom dancing, as well as proper etiquette and social graces, since 1964.
“We try to give students confidence on and off the dance floor,” explained owner Lois Thomson. “Barclay gives children an edge in social situations that they’re all going to face one day, whether in college interviews or in business.” Barclay alum Christy Schultze enjoyed the classes so much as a child that she wanted to pass the tradition to her own children. Seventh grader Annabelle, fifth grader Julia, and third grader Hugo are currently enrolled at Barclay’s.
“I like that once a month, they learn to interact with other children, who are not in their world, not necessarily in the same school or sports programs,” said Schultze. “I even like the fact that the kids get dressed up from time to time,” she added with a laugh.
Barclay Classes go all the way back to the Great Depression, when a New York City governess, Jessie Dotterer, was forced to leave her position. Upon returning to her home in Summit, New Jersey, she opened Hobby Hall, offering formal dance instruction, as well as sewing, etiquette, and bridge lessons. After some time, John Barclay began working with Dotterer and, once she retired, he filled her shoes and renamed the program.
Discovering that families preferred classes in their own communities, the new owner branched out. Here in Rye, classes were initially held at Rye Country Day School before moving to the Apawamis Club, where classes are still held in its elegant ballroom.
As a result of the program’s expansion, Barclay enlisted the help of one of his old Hobby Hall students, William Thomson. The protégé took over the business in 1956 and, later, his wife Lois taught the children as well.
“I’ve always danced, but was I a Rockette? Absolutely not,” Thomson remarked. “My husband, on the other hand, was a fantastic dancer and he made me into a pretty good one.”
When her husband died in 1991, Thomson inherited the whole kit and caboodle. “I was crushed. I lost my husband, my best friend, dance partner, and business partner,” lamented Thomson, who bravely put on her dancing shoes and hired additional instructors, Peter Michaels, her son-in-law Dennis Kelley, and, later, Regina Zadourian. The trio is still the face of ballroom dancing at Apawamis today.
Having taken the lead, Thomon still runs Barclay Classes, which continues to expand throughout New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Open to third through seventh graders, the one-hour sessions are held ten times during the school year. Accompanied by a pianist and a drummer, children start out by learning the cha-cha before going on to the waltz, foxtrot, rumba, and even a little rock ‘n’ roll.
Keeping the youngsters light on their feet, however, is not Barclay’s primary goal.
It’s more about teaching children the importance of making good first impressions, observing a dress code, making eye contact, engaging in small courtesies, and polite conversation.
“When they hear it in a group from a person with authority, who is not their parent, they listen and respect it,” noted Lois.
Although third grader Elizabeth Kelly makes no pretense about liking to dance with boys at her tender age, she admitted, “I have learned how to introduce myself when I meet someone new and to help my mom with her coat when we go to a restaurant.” She also has the cha-cha and the waltz down pat.
“The third graders may be timid, but like little sponges they absorb everything,” Thomson explained. “The fourth graders are proud about what they remember from the year before, and the fifth through seventh graders are offered more advanced dance instruction. We work with them by bringing humor into it.”
On the flip side, the instructors get a kick out of their young students. Thomson referred to the dilemma of “double dancing,” when two girls are matched up with one boy during a session where there’s an uneven number.
“Because the young kids take everything so literally, we have to make sure to tell the boys that when they go to a real dance they don’t ask two girls to dance at once,” she said with a smile.
After all these years, the Barclay owner is pleased that despite a faster-paced world, “today’s parents still set aside the time for their children to learn about and enjoy a more gentle side of life.”