Today’s Dayton Ballet took its first steps when two sisters pushed aside their living room furniture to make room for young performers.
As young girls, Josephine Schwarz and her older sister, Hermene, were mesmerized by Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova’s performance at Memorial Hall in 1910.
Dance continued to influence their lives. At age 8, a case of mumps left Josephine bed ridden and fragile. To rebuild her strength and balance, she was enrolled in a local dance academy.
As her dance skills flourished, her father’s haberdashery business began to fail and eventually went bankrupt.
“I had to give up my music lessons, my drama classes and my dancing,” she told the Dayton Daily News in 1993, “but I couldn’t give up my dancing. I just couldn’t.”
To earn money for her own lessons, she began a school of dance in her family’s Dayton View home with Hermene as the accompanist on piano. Ten students each paid 10 cents to study with her.
Hermene, who was also a talented dancer, earned money working in a doctor’s office so the siblings could study with famed Russian ballet teacher Adolph Bolm in Chicago during several summers.
The siblings co-founded the Schwarz School of Dance in their home in 1927. The Schwarz School would later become the Dayton Ballet School. Josephine taught dance along with Hermene, who also designed costumes and built scenery.
In 1928, during a trip to Chicago, Josephine saw a performance by German modern dancers that moved her to tears and impacted her career.
“I had never cried at a dance performance before. It was so beautiful,” she said in 1993. “I loved modern dance because it was so free; you could do anything. But I never lost my love for ballet.”
The Depression took its toll on the sisters’ school and enrollment dropped. Josephine, who had seen an advertisement for George Balanchine’s new School of American Ballet, took $70 out of the bank, left the school in Hermene’s hands and moved to New York City.
Years of work earned her a spot with a theater company and then a position as a featured dancer in a Broadway revue called “Life Begins at 8:40,” starring Milton Berle. A knee injury sent her home to the Gem City, where Hermene continued to run the Schwarz School.
In 1937, Josephine and Hermene co-founded the Experimental Group for Young Dancers, the forerunner of the Dayton Ballet, which trained dancers in both ballet and modern dance, a progressive pairing for the time.
“Miss Jo” and “Miss Hermene,” as they were known, taught, choreographed and produced dancers that influenced Dayton and beyond. The sisters opened their classes to black students at a time when much of the country was segregated. One of their students, Jeraldyne Blunden, went on to found the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.
Hermene died in 1986 and Josephine died almost two decades later in 2004.
At the time of Josephine’s death, Barbara Weisberger, a founder of the Pennsylvania Ballet, said “Miss Jo” turned out students that had an all-encompassing sense of what dance was.
“She taught that good dance is good dance, with one beating heart,” she said.