The CDHP interview team met with Barbara Atkins Ruhman in her home on July 18. Having found news clippings about her in the Midwest Dance Collection at the Newberry Library, we were eager to ask about her unique story of spectacular early success and tragic injury.
Barbara studied ballet for 10 years winning competitive scholarships Edna McRae at the Fine Arts Building. She described her teacher as “extremely strict. She demanded perfection of technique; respect for French terminology, exhaustive in her research of dance music; I was required to study piano. I learned the famous classical ballet variations and was given opportunities to gain professional stage experience dancing throughout Chicago in Opera companies; Museum of Science and Industry programs; and many other organizations.”
After graduating with honors from Senn High School, Barbara moved to New York City in 1952, auditioned successfully for several ballet companies and “was fortunate to be chosen to join American Ballet Theater. I loved the diversity of their repertoire. It was an American company with great choreographers Jerome Robbins, Agnes de Mille, Micheal Kidd; and composers like Leonard Bernstein, Morton Gould and Aaron Copland; along with the great classic ballets. I felt so fortunate dancing and and working with the world’s great composers, choreographers and performing artists.”
In her first year with ABT, Barbara remembers “ an extensive, exhaustive year touring 95 U. S. cities.” She progressed through the ranks, learning 17 ballets, and felt fortunate to be chosen for featured roles in Graduation Ball, Interplay, Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. While touring Europe in 1953, Barbara had an unfortunate accident. While crossing the street, she was struck by a drunken truck driver in Lausanne, Switzerland. For Barbara, although her dancing career was temporarily suspended, her injury was not limiting. While immobilized for four months, she stated,“I rediscovered my love for learning and read voraciously in the hospital…With crisis comes opportunity.”
Thanks to these studies, Barbara also realized that the strange man who had painted the costume she was wearing before one particular ABT performance was none other than Marc Chagall!
Barbara returned to Chicago and started auditing classes at Northwestern University on crutches. During the following 9 months of recuperation and rehabilitation at McRae’s studio, “I became engaged to be married and rejoined ABT performing at Ravinia Park, dancing my old roles. At the end of the tour, Lucia Chase, the director of the company, offered me future soloist opportunities – everything I had ever dreamed as a dancer. I was determined not to have my career with ABT ended because of an accident, but chose to leave a touring and performing life. Traditional roles for women the 1950s predominated and chosen; marriage and family was the most significant priority.”
In her thirties, Barbara pursued a B. A. degree in Psychology and Sociology from Mundelein College and explored Movement and Dance Therapy at Elgin State Psychiatric Hospital. She then taught at the Carol Walker School of Dance and was on the faculty at Barat College Dance Department in Lake Forest.
In her forties, Barbara was accepted at The University of Chicago to pursue a Master’s degree at the Social Service Administration in Clinical Social Work with the emphasis on treatment. After graduation, she was accepted in a 2 Year Advanced Training Fellowship in Clinical Social Work at Michael Reese Hospital, Department of Psychiatry. Barbara joined the staff and worked at Family Service of South Lake County for 5 years.
Barbara continued her professional development and graduated from The Child and Adolescent Psychoanalytic Therapy Program of the Institute for Psychoanalysis, while working as a psychotherapist for 5 years at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, the “best gig I ever had.”
Barbara had a private practice as a psychotherapist for 25 years with offices in Highland Park and Chicago.
Barbara Atkins Ruhman retired from her clinical private practice and volunteered for Career Transitions for Dancers. She continues to be a Trustee Emeritus on the Board of The Chicago Academy for the Arts and on the Women’s Board of the University of Chicago.
-Catrien Egbert and Hélène Lupa with Barbara Ruhman