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Projects and People

Dance lessons

Sybil Shearer ’34—who danced with the Humphrey-Weidman dance group (as did José Limón) and was an assistant choreographer with Agnes de Mille—drew critical acclaim for her solo recital at Carnegie Hall in the 1940s. She formed her own dance company in 1959 and established the Morrison-Shearer Foundation and Museum in 1989. (Among the collections there are films by Helen Balfour Morrison that document Shearer’s fifteen choreographed works, her performances, and conversations with leading dance artists and critics of the mid-twentieth century.)

A longtime Chicago-area resident, Shearer is now a dance critic for Ballet Review and has been writing Without Wings the Way Is Steep, a three-volume autobiography. Madeleine Nichols, curator of the dance collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, says the book (the first volume of which consists largely of Shearer’s own letters—she wrote them in books before sending) is “written with the unique flair and wisdom of a creative spirit who went her own way, developing into one of the innovators of the twentieth century.”

In her writings Shearer was able to express “a profound sense of being different and of being awakened from a slumber” during her college years, Nichols says. Early on at Skidmore, Shearer wrote, “The passion that has so long possessed me of being different, of never really copying, of being independent, has mounted so high that…it insists on my believing that [my emotions] were not intended to be expressed by any of the present existing arts, but could only be revealed to the world in a new form of art, a new language of expression.”

In the absence of a dance major, she studied drama and literature. By her senior year, Shearer had decided she would be a creator in a field that combined dance and theater. She read everything she could on the subject and was particularly impressed by the writings of John Martin, who said, “The modern dance is not a technique; it is a point of view.”

For Shearer, it became an all-encompassing focus. “A performance for me was a complete emptying out, [after which] I had to have time to recuperate…in order to have the full amount to give the next time,” she writes. “This balance of emptying out and filling up again has stood me in good stead, so that I not only still feel like giving, but actually can give, to the world in general and certain individuals in particular.”

For more information about Shearer’s autobiography, contact the Morrison-Shearer Foundation: 401 North Lee Road, Northbrook, IL 60062.

Fine China

At sixty-five—when most people are retiring, or at least thinking of it—Jill Shelling Remy ’54 went to China. And not just to see the sights.

A job counselor with the YMCA in Seattle, Wash., Remy bade farewell to social work in 1998 and responded to a one-line ad in the Seattle Times: “Teach in China.” Two weeks later she had a job offer—teaching oral English at a middle school for a year—and three months after that she arrived in Xindu, in Sichuan Province.

The school-provided apartment—a grungy “one-room cell in one of the girls’ dormitories”—shocked her senses. “I cried for two nights and did not unpack for a week,” Remy says. But things got better. “My teaching went well, and the school offered many short trips around the province.” As her circle of friends grew, she became immersed in Chinese society. Before long, Remy (pictured above with English majors at a graduation party) decided to stay—indefinitely.

Last summer she moved into a quiet, modern, amenity-packed condo (“tennis courts, pool, clubhouse, gardens”) in Hainan Province. Teaching now for two private schools and tutoring a handful of students in her home, she feels “content and satisfied; this is a very blissful way to ‘retire’.”

But living in China is not for the weak-kneed, Remy cautions. “If it’s solitude you seek, don’t come to China. People are loud and pushy and spit constantly. The kids are incredibly spoiled; the cities are polluted beyond belief. McDonald’s and KFC are replacing one of the world’s greatest cuisines.” Even the country’s educational system has its sore points with Remy. “Students are encouraged to listen and memorize, but not to think,” she complains.

Still, for Remy, the sweet outweighs the sour. “Who will hire a 71-year-old in the US?” she asks. “Here I’m offered two or three more jobs every month.” Then there’s the “amazing, diverse culture” and the simple fact of affordability: “Foot massages, body massages, facials, and haircuts are to die for and cost pennies.”

Remy’s lifestyle also allows for frequent travel. She’s been to Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. In March she went to Egypt. “I decided a long time ago that the world is too large and its people too wonderful to miss by staying in one place,” Remy says. She welcomes e-mail at jillremy@hotmail.com.

Stress & spiritual experience

We’ve all heard of “fight or flight” as a reaction to stress. In the 1980s Laurie Williams Hamilton ’70, a psychotherapist in Asheville, N.C., suggested there was a third form of human stress response: freeze. Studies conducted in the wild indicate that some animals (deer, rabbits, opossums) “freeze” in stressful situations, making their heart rates and blood pressure drop. She was able to detail a similar response in humans and noted that the freeze, or parasympathetic response, “seemed related to certain kinds of depression and phobia.”

Hamilton published an article on her findings and then took her research a step further. “I had noticed that certain types of depression, as they lifted, seemed to cause some patients—regardless of their belief systems—to report spiritual experiences (particularly luminous dreams),” she says. These experiences could be perceived by individuals as either “illuminating and useful or distressing and harmful.” (The difference between “genuine” and “psychotic” spiritual experiences, Hamilton believes, lies largely in their interpretation. A feeling of safety and goodness is present in the former, while the latter tend to be fear-driven.)

She has concluded that “spiritual experience is a normally occurring phenomenon primarily mediated by the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. My belief is that the veracity of spiritual experience is anchored in the neuroscience of it,” says Hamilton, who has been presenting informational workshops on the topic to other psychologists. “Some people think that explaining the physical underpinnings somehow diminishes the reality (as in ‘It’s all in your mind’).” But, she says, “I can explain the physical mechanism of sight…does that mean you don’t actually see anything?”

Using another analogy, Hamilton says “the body is like a radio set—I can explain the tubes, diodes, and wiring—and that we definitely ‘tune into’ different stations. My personal belief is that some stations are worth listening to and others should be ignored.” (Just as a person with an attention deficit disorder responds to a large amount of stimuli by blocking out too much of it, a person who can’t filter out anything also doesn’t function well.)

“I think there are many implications in this area, particularly those related to issues of resilience in response to stress,” Hamilton adds. Inducing spiritual experiences by nourishing the parasympathetic response is possible. As anyone who’s ever relieved stress by exercising or meditating knows, we do have the capacity to tap into a safer-feeling place—it’s just a matter of remembering that, she says.

Horse sense

Amy Bondon Peltz ’79 has parlayed her lifelong love of horses, strong belief in philanthropy, and sharp mind for business into a trifecta that’s having a positive effect on the tradition-bound horse-racing industry.
Bondon-Peltz worked on a New Jersey breeding farm while still in college. After earning her Skidmore degree in biology, she worked as a stablehand, often for very meager wages. But in 2000 she and husband Ron founded a stable of their own and began marketing their equine roster on the Web.

Today she’s the owner of Estrorace.com and an agent for Ron in Equirace.com, two stables with about 30 horses in total—including, in 2003, the high-level stakeswinner and Breeders Cup entrant Freefourinternet. Bondon-Peltz divides her time between Ocala, Fla., and Birmingham, Ala., and enters horses at tracks around the country, including Churchill Downs, Hollywood Park, Belmont, and Saratoga.

But her business goes beyond buying, selling, and racing; through Estrorace she is also a leading advocate for women in the racing industry. She hires female trainers who might not otherwise land top jobs with major barns—such as Joan Scott, a former assistant trainer who got the chance to take charge of Freefourinternet. Bondon-Pelz wants more out of her racing career than winning purses; as she told the New York Times last October, she also wants to promote “the sisterhood of women.”

Bondon-Peltz donates a percentage of her Estrorace proceeds to charities that help women and that have ties to the track or sales ground where the money was made. Beneficiaries include the Friend for Life cancer support network; Riding for a Cure, which supports breast-cancer survivors and research; and the Racetrack Chaplaincy of America, which assists backstretch workers with legal, educational, and health issues.

Bondon-Peltz is proud to share the rewardsof her success in a competitive industry where women have to be especially tough, she says. “It’s brutal to stay alive, much less to be able to give away. I’ve fired more accountants who told me it can’t be done.” She’s proved “it can be done—but you have to be careful.” Last year she was thrilled to be the inaugural recipient of the Penny Chenery Distinguished Woman in Racing Award, presented by Chenery herself (owner of Secretariat, a Triple Crown winner in 1973) at Chicago’s Arlington Park.

Home work

Nine years ago Lisa Stackler Bates ’80 bought a brick Victorian on the east side of Saratoga. Before it was fully renovated, she moved in—with her family. “It’s an experience many say can kill you,” she says. But she lived. And found, actually, that working on the house tapped into her “passion for architecture, design, and color.”

It didn’t hurt that her father and grandfathers were builders and developers. But it was woodworker Bryan Browne who inspired her to swing a hammer. He also made her “lift heavy beams, gut old plaster walls, insulate hard-to-reach attic spaces, and use a miter saw.” She went on to build a house on her own, then formed a partnership with Browne.

Working with an architect, Bates tends to the interior details, indulging her “obsession with architectural salvage and old-house parts” and sometimes applying faux finishes, her former occupation. Browne, meanwhile, acts as general contractor and spends time in the pair’s woodworking shop, crafting doors, cabinets, and built-ins.

Together they renovate or build one or two homes a year in Saratoga Springs. “We like to find properties that have had other uses in the past and turn them into new and exciting places,” Bates says—like the carpet warehouse and florist business they converted to a carriage house. They always design their houses on speculation. “It’s risky,” Bates admits, “but you get used to having a knot in your stomach while you wait for a buyer—yikes!”

If there’s a downside to restoration work, it’s dealing with all the “inherent crookedness of an older home, which can be quite frustrating,” Bates notes. “Our goal is not to make the places brand-new, but to reinvent them with good, sound structure and innovative style.”

Bates and Browne’s current project is the Serotta home on North Broadway, once used by Skidmore for professorial housing. A kit house built in 1959 and designed by Boston architect Carl Koch, the modest one-family home needed updating. But the revamp also had to pass muster with the city’s design review committee, since it’s in a historic district. The builders have successfully doubled the structure’s square footage, while keeping its appearance “comfortable with its grand surroundings,” and Bates is convinced someone will fall in love with the house this summer—and buy it. “Any alumni interested in moving back to your old haunt? It’s for sale!” You can e-mail Bates at ludlowlane@aol.com.

The art of naturopathy

A few accidents—both happy and not—set Elspeth Seddig ’94 on a path to being a doctor. Her miraculous healing after a car wreck fifteen years ago gave her food for thought. “I should not have survived,” she says. But despite suffering severe head injuries and losing more than half her blood, she never lost consciousness and recovered without a transfusion.

Then, after graduating with a double major in studio art and art history, Seddig went to Mexico,to teach raku ceramics. While there she became interested in holistic healing and happened upon an ad for the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Ore., where she later enrolled.

Besides being schooled asa general practitioner, she received extensive training in the use of natural medicines and noninvasive procedures. Since receiving her ND and a certificate of homeopathy, Seddig has set up her own practice—the Acadia Naturopathic Clinic—in Ellsworth, Maine. She’s one of only a dozen naturopaths in the state. Her open house two years ago attracted the cops (it was so packed that cars were blocking the fire lane), and within three months, she says, “the practice was booked solid.”

As Seddig told the Bar Harbor Times, a naturopathic doctor’s goal is “to address the underlying cause of illness; restore the body back to health by safe, effective, and natural measures; and educate the patient on the importance of taking an active role in his or her own health and well-being.” She’s not opposed to drugs, she adds, but when they fail to improve a patient’s condition, a naturopath can use “therapeutic methods that strengthen and act in harmony with the body’s self-healing ability”—methods like homeopathy, Chinese medicine, botanical medicine, hydrotherapy, lifestyle counseling, and craniosacral therapy. “It’s not unusual for a patient to see both me and an MD,” Seddig says. “We work adjunctively on the case, which works quite well and increases the success rate.”

Her patients range in age from two weeks to 88 years, and she treats them for everything from high cholesterol and strep throat to heavy-metal toxicity and cancer. The only people she can’t help, she suggests, are those who “want a magic pill. In true healing that lasts,” Seddig says, “there is no magic pill.”

In the end, Seddig the doctor has not completely lost track of Seddig the artist. “I don’t have gallery shows and a studio,” she says. “But I’ve changed my medium to that of the human body: medicine is an art as well as a science.”