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Mama and Papa were old to have chidren, and I had arrived unexpectedly—most things I did seemed to be unexpected.Sybil with parents John Porter Shearer and Constance Klinger Shearer, Nyack, New York, 1919Sybil Shearer, Autobiography, Volume III


Sybil as a young girl, c. 1920

Sybil Shearer was born February 23, 1912, in Toronto, the only child of a successful American businessman and his Canadian-born wife. At age three in Nyack, NY, she loved to dance around the living room while her mother played piano. When her father’s business was moved, the family settled on Long Island. There a crucial event occurred when, at eleven or twelve, her mother took her to see Anna Pavlova dance. “I was simply carried away,” writes Sybil. “We looked at each other. She signed my program. I had fallen in love with her, with the dance, with the theatre.” She saw Pavlova again that season on a visit to Toronto. In 1924 Sybil’s mother took her to England to see her aunt Sybil, who was married to a vicar in London. Sybil knew Pavlova lived there, but did not feel “ready” to see her again.

After returning from England, the family moved to Newark, NY, where Sybil began taking ballet lessons from Grace Miles. We know, from a May 2, 1924 article in The Lyons Republican, that Miles spent winters in Palm Beach, where her students included children of Mrs. Alfred Vanderbilt and of Mrs. Florenz Ziegfeld, the former Billie Burke. Sybil finished high school in Newark, including some time in France in her junior year. By now, she knew she wanted to be an artist – a dancer — but her father did not like the idea and insisted that she attend college. She chose Skidmore College, where she majored in English literature and performed in plays, while dreaming of dancing.

Sybil taking ballet lessons from Grace Miles, Newark, New York, c. 1928
Sybil’s father built a studio for her in this barn, in Lyons, New York, 1943

Perhaps it was destiny that the Bennington Summer School of Dance began its seminal experiment in 1934, the very summer after Sybil’s graduation from Skidmore. The biggest names in modern dance were there: Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Hanya Holm, Louis Horst, and critic John Martin. Sybil enrolled as a student, and that fall her father agreed to support her for a year in New York. There she lived at the Three Arts Club, studied dance with Doris and Charles, and studied acting with Maria Ouspenskaya. Accepted into the Humphrey-Weidman Company, she returned to Bennington with them in the summers of 1935-1937 — as a dancer and as an instructor. She also toured with their company. In 1938-39 she danced and toured with Agnes de Mille, with whom she had become friends in 1935. And she studied music with Russian composer Yuri Bilstin; became friends with the esoteric composer Dane Rudhyar; and got to know John Martin and his wife better.

Sybil (center) at Bennington

By 1936 her parents had moved from Newark to nearby Lyons, NY, where her father built a studio for her in the upper story of their barn. By 1940 she was perfecting her own dances and giving dance-demonstration programs. The culmination of her New York years was her radical solo debut at Carnegie Chamber Music Hall in October 1941, for which she received high accolades.