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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Nova Academy

For several years in the late seventies, I taught at Nova Academy in San Francisco’s Sunset district. The school had been founded by Merriam LaNova to educate high school age dancers attending the San Francisco Conservatory of Ballet. There the regimen was strict and old-fashioned. Lanova had, after all, danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her style was icy and stern. Her husband, though a cellist with the symphony, looked like a mobster. Leonide Massine came by on occasion to view my classes, and the Kronos Quartet sometimes practiced in an unused studio.
The school maintained the façade of an elite preparatory school. The principal always wore a three-piece suit. The older classrooms were decorated as though they were part of some old manor, landed by accident above an urban storefront. One featured a hunting mural on one wall, another had a huge fake fireplace, a third had a ceiling of painted panels that belonged in an Italian basilica.

The fact was, though, that, along with the dedicated dancers, Nova Academy, like other private schools, found itself accepting many students for a variety of reasons it would prefer not to admit. Some parents wanted their children in an all-white environment; other young scholars had encountered unpleasant disciplinary proceedings their parents were willing to pay to escape. Several foreign students had enrolled in preparation to applying to American universities. The dancers were, in fact, all but invisible in a larger crowd including drifter, misfits, and troublemakers.

This reality sometimes clashed with the high art pretensions of the dance world. Among the distinguished visitors was Kyra Nijinska, Vaslav’s daughter. Once a dancer with the Ballet Russe, she now painted mystic canvases, but now and then she would come to Nova to conduct a Flamenco class. I could hear the heavy heels stomping above my room. Her manners were odd, and, to the more vulgar students, exceedingly comical. If she perceived a mocking look, she would rise up in indignation and declare, “Do you know who I am? I am the daughter of the Grrreat Nijinsky!” Before long, the students, innocent of any idea of her father’s work (or her own) were greeting each other with this line, suitably exaggerated.

For some reason, the school seemed to define itself with reactionary tradition. Apart from the anti-Bolshevik feeling of the Russian émigré tradition, propaganda magazines from apartheid South Africa were among the few journals scattered about the office waiting area. The emphasis was, as the principle Michael Badenhausen reminded the students at morning assembly, self-discipline and hard work. But, alas, by mid-morning, the pink-faced principal was three sheets to the wind, sometimes literally lying on his office floor, passed out. If a parent came to consult him, the staff would have to think on their feet. He had been a Peace Corps volunteer in the bush of Upper Volta (as it was then called), and that experience was probably enough to explain his alcoholism, but it was not his only peccadillo. Once a well-built young friend of his appeared at the school, wearing skin-tight jeans with a chain belt and a motorcycle jacket with no shirt. Madam could hardly have approved, but for reasons best known to the two of them, she tolerated his behavior with maternal protectiveness.

Our pay was little more than welfare, less if one includes food stamps -- $325 a month when I began, then increased to $375. In the middle of my second year of service at Nova, I began to organize. I called the local teachers’ unions who, I must say, showed little solidarity. I set out to do it myself. “They can’t fire you,” I told my coworkers, “You’re protected by state and federal labor law.” Threatening a mid-year strike, we received Lanova’s signature on an agreement giving us $425 a month and a certain position for the coming year. Then, when the term ended in the spring, the entire faculty was fired. (Doubtless individuals the administration trusted who showed proper contrition might be allowed back.) I picketed the graduation exercises in my suit and then put down my sign to enter the hall and take my seat to applaud the graduates. I filed a complaint against the school with the California Labor Commission. It was the least I could do after leading my fellow-workers down a path that proved more dangerous than I had known.

After months had passed, I received notice of a hearing before an administrative judge. When I entered, the school’s attorney was just saying to the judge, “It’s frivolous, really,” and the judge, in an old-boy manner, responded with resignation, “Well, we must give him his day, anyway.” While I presented what seemed to me undeniable facts, their scurrilous lawyer proceeded to tell outlandish lies: that I was fired because of my obdurate gum-chewing, that Lanova would not have signed the agreement had I not been raising a fist over her in a menacing way. I was at the time young enough to be genuinely surprised at my adversary’s complete dishonesty. Needless to say, the hearing was decided against me, and, as it happened, about that time I received an offer to teach school in the Nigerian bush. Perhaps if I had prevailed over my San Francisco employer, I would never have seen the palace of the Oba of Benin nor would I have drunk palm wine from a calabash with a dozen drowned bees afloat. Doubtless, the time had come to move on.


  1. Good heavens! I went to Nova Academy when I was six years old, in 1973. If my family hadn't moved out of town, I might have been one of your students a few years later.

    Thank you for your activism. It was a *very* strange place, I remember, and obviously I wasn't aware how much.

  2. Cynthia Gaedy DavidsonNovember 17, 2012 at 12:26 PM

    I remember Michael Badenhausen, what a character he was. I never knew if I should zig or zag around him. Teka you might have been in my class. What grade were you in? I was in 3rd.

  3. I were probably in the batch of Nova´s late comer accepted foreigners you mentioned..but I have fond memories of the place and the class of 82...especially visiting the theater...Fisherman´s Wharf...with our fellow students...


  4. Cynthia, I was in first grade, so we probably didn't encounter each other much. I think our classrooms were next door, though, and you guys got the window! We didn't have one at all.

  5. I was a frightened attendee around 1981 or 1982. I only lasted the 5th Grade before my Mom caught onto the farce and moved us to another school. I was in the large classroom downstairs for the most part. Mr. Meredith, Dr. French... Jennifer Schwartz

  6. I attended Nova Academy for 1st 2nd & 3rd grade apx from 1970 -1973. Being African American I was one of if not the only person of color being trained at the ballet school by Ms Lanova. My best memory is performing in the Nutcracker as a bon bon girl. As far as the academics by 3rd grade the teachers were a bit out there. I can vaguely remember their were alot of turnover in teachers so I got this free sprit Mrs Light I believe as a teacher. We had these colorful large pillows that we sat on instead of our desks. That was it my grandmother transferred me to Katherine Burkes a very prestigious school in seacliff where I continued taking ballet an being the only person of color in my class until I graduated 8th grade.

  7. For some reason I googled Merriam LaNova today and came across this post.
    I attended the Nova Academy for two years. Third and fourth grades in 1963-1965. Then it was tiny, with perhaps 40 students total in all the grades from 1-12. I believe it was also known as the School of Universal Living (SOUL) at one point. The entire school was housed in the downstairs area of a building on the NE corner of Market & Laguna where Hermann meets Laguna.

    I distinctly remember the day that President Kennedy was shot. The entire student body was scheduled to go to the circus that evening ... going back 53 years I would say near Kezar Stadium? We all went anyway and I remember the clowns and performers and half the audience were crying. Never mind the animal cruelty, no wonder I've never liked the circus since then.

    I was not a good fit with all the prissy little ballerinas. I ducked ballet class whenever I could!

    I have almost no memory of the academics ... I transferred back to public school for the remainder of my childhood and then went to Yale. I came back to San Francisco after graduation and still think of the Nova Academy every time I drive past that building at Market & Laguna.

    1. Hello Alexandra
      Please see my post in response to yours, about SOUL!

  8. Hello Alexandra, and all the other SOUL siblings! We must have been at SOUL at the same time. I, too, attended at the basement level "campus" on Market street. It was three or four small subterranean rooms, with a dentist's office above. Dr, Riffle, as I recall. After lunch, the entire school would walk en masse down Market to another building on Rose Alley, where ballet classes were held all afternoon.
    In the mid-60's SOUL moved academics and ballet into a building on O'Farrell, just east of Van Ness. That building is now an auto parts store.
    My mother taught English at SOUL, and a number of other subjects at "Miss Lanova's" whim. My mom may have taught in trade for our tuitions. I think four of her six kids attended.
    I remember both locations being run on very tight shoestring budgets, though it seemed like just another place to play, to a 6 year-old.
    Alexandra, we must have been there on the same day, since I recall being confused about all the adult angst when Kennedy was shot. The death of a rockstar president had no ponderous meaning to the kids. To this day, I remember the terrified and deadly serious expressions of the teachers when the announcement was made to the gathered school. My favorite memories of SOUL are of the performances of Nutcracker that we did, all over Northern California during Xmas seasons. We had a regular performance spot on Divisadero, in what was then a former cinema. It is now a night club called "Independent". We also performed at the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple at Sloat and 19th. (Quite a lavish modern place). The prima ballerinas and danseurs overawed me, though they were probably just 17 year old girls and boys.
    SOUL's academic standards might have deteriorated over the years, but in the early 60's the standards were actually pretty high. There was a freewheeling bohemian feel, but the teachers were quite engaged and classes were real. The adult/child ratio was very high, so the kids got lots of attention. The kids also got along very well with each other. I remember no bullying, factions, or tensions among the kids. It was a fun playful environment.
    I believe that Miss Lanova's last iteration of the school was in the former convent across Dolores Street from Mission Dolores.
    I added SOUL to Classmates DOT com, but I'm the only person listed, so far. I would love to hear from former SOULmates. -Joao Bettencourt jtbettencourt@gmail.com

  9. Hi, Me an my brother was there in a church building with a rotating cross on the roof near haight and market in the 60's. we had mr covell and miss kyros and the edwardses. they would holler about the not wants of public school and then mutter in welsh and then smoke something and start again. we had a guy who had a sis that was a dancer in the nutz stuff and he went to school because he liked some kind of pain and dressing in dresses which he had in a bag and had dope hid in the little locker with the goblet. we was in the nutz show and went on tour to modesto and san diego where I discovered sex in the motel with a whole lot of surprise. they had a laundry for 35 cents. Mr valentine had a beret and walked bent over and pointed at gthe wall and said "that has been there only since the last time I saw it"...and we was impressed. Miss lanova was name mary crow, her mom said, and belonged to a cult that dressed up in a barr and got rough and ended up in a place near stern's grove where we also did a show named kopalia with birds flying over and dropping. I dont remember muc else except vietnam for my brother who loved his sis, me.

    1. Pray tell...was your name Pachience? I was Judy, then, and am now Marcos Billitos. You were such a star, big, but in a rather nice way. the teachers are forgotten, as are the lessons.

  10. Hello, Hello SOUL Kinder....what an extended hoot it is to read this stuff from other processed's from the La-Nova Academy called S O U L.
    I am myself remembering here the folks and
    names and such like named Robby, Centursky, Beulah, Alix, Powers, Terroning, Hyacith. Schwin, Anton, Craagh, Valerie, Sonnette, Adair, and think that the big girl danser's name was Pechi for Patence. I was relinquished to folks called Rogers by me Ol Ma and they worked with Mmme La Nova and Ballets Celestses on tours and sent me to her Academy with my sister for the checks from the foundation. She was not my sister. She is probably still an alien life form who has only a coelem and no discernible heart. We were caused to be in the shows on tours to a place called redlands with a girl named Penelope being peculiarly hoisted painfully by a Swan with a cigarette gay man, and his two older boyfreinds named something I forget who lived on Mt something under a cross. I also found intimacy in a motel without the 35 scent laundry. Do all of you exist any where? I now live in Hilo. Good Bye.