Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 2000
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APRIL 2000


In the pueblos of New Mexico, three sisters from Baltimore set out to observe--and master--the intricacies of Native American dance.
Opening photo courtesy Peabody Archives
APRIL 2000
Pioneers of Scholarship

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Sisters in Step
By Dale Keiger

May Garrettson Evans was one to act on her ideas. A former Peabody Conservatory student, she believed that young music students would profit from a preparatory school that readied them for the rigors of a conservatory. So she founded one in 1894, with her sister Marion. They anticipated 50 applicants. More than 300 clamored for admission. Four years later, her "Peabody Graduates' Preparatory and High School of Music" was absorbed by her alma mater and became the Peabody Prep. She supervised construction of the Prep's building in 1922.

In 1928, the 62-year-old Evans wanted to study Native American dance. So she did the sort of thing May Garrettson Evans did-- with Marion and third sister Bessie she headed for New Mexico to find Navajo and Pueblo Indian dancers. The sisters observed, questioned, and ultimately devised a system of notation to record the dances, which they learned to perform. A snapshot shows May perched on a ladder leaning against a pueblo. She looks alert and engaged. Seated on a lower rung, Marion is wrapped in a cloth coat, wearing a cloche and an expression that strongly suggests she'd just as soon be anywhere but New Mexico.

May Garrettson Evans (top) with sister Marion during their 1928 visit to the pueblos of New Mexico.

The Evans sisters returned to Baltimore and published their research in a 1931 book titled American Indian Dance Steps, illustrated by noted Baltimore sculptor J. Maxwell Miller. May and Bessie demonstrated Indian dances at a series of recitals at places that included the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Yale University, and the Steel Pier Theater in Atlantic City. The Peabody Bulletin for 1929 notes that after their appearance in New York, "it was conceded that their research was the first of its kind and possessed an unusual interest and significance." It also records that in their Peabody recital, Bessie wore "her Navajo costume...trousers of white, jacket of scarlet, and Sioux war-bonnet of eagle feathers." We're not sure what to make of the "Sioux war-bonnet," but that may have been a descriptive liberty taken by the Bulletin's correspondent. Of their New York performance, Ernest Thompson Seton wrote, "Accept my hearty congratulations... I have never known any other white person come more closely to the Indian tone, song, and rendition."