Sunday, March 8, 1998
A legacy in dance

Anneliese von Oettingen is surrounded by ballet students during a class in October at her studio in Cheviot.
(Yoni Pozner photo)
| ZOOM |
Enquirer contributor

Fifty years ago this month, Anneliese von Oettingen opened her first dance studio at Francis DeSales corner in Walnut Hills. It was a tiny room by studio standards - 30 by 17 feet - but she made sure it was fully equipped with mirrors, barres and a smooth wooden floor.

Thirty-five students enrolled that first day.

As a class of 4-year-olds sat on the floor waiting for instructions, one little girl refused to participate.

"I took her by the hand and walked her over to her mother and gave them a refund," Ms. von Oettingen says. "One of the other mothers said 'Anneliese, what are you doing? You don't have any money and already you're giving refunds?' But I wasn't going to take money from someone I couldn't help."

Ms. von Oettingen looks like a huggable grandmother, with champagne-colored hair, a sweet round face and placid blue eyes. But to watch her teach is a study in youthful grace. The 81-year-old teacher defies age stereotyping and continues to be a vibrant dance presence.

Not retiring

Thousands of students have danced through her studio doors; many she helped along in dance careers of their own. In time, she added seven more locations throughout the city and for 14 years taught morning ballet classes at Edgecliff College.

Anneliese von Oettingen

  • Born: Jan. 22, 1917.
  • Career: Dancer, teacher and choreographer.
  • Family: Widow; daughter Cornelia, 53; son Tyll, 56; and six grandchildren.
  • Dance training: Classical ballet, Nicolas Legat; character dancing, Egenie Edvardova; modern, Edith von Schrenck (her cousin). We'd be surprised to learn: I was also a tap dancer. I would do one-woman shows. First I would dance a classical ballet. Then I would change costumes and do a Spanish dance. Then tap dancing. They called me the ''German Eleanor Powell.''
  • Favorite things to do: Swim. Any kind of boat ride. ''I love sailing. I keep a row boat in Cincinnati. I love a cruise, but not the kind where you eat and drink all the time - just a good boat ride.''
  • Your best dishes: ''I'm very good at cooking fish - very flaky and broiled. Next would be my pork chops, so tender you can cut them with a fork. And chicken, baked whole.'' Anything you can't cook? ''Cakes I'm not good at.''
  • Most looking forward to: ''A trip in August to Germany with my 22-year-old granddaughter Annalisa. I love her dearly, and we're going to Berlin, my first time back since the war.''
  • Although she has turned over most of the teaching duties at three remaining locations to Maki Kabayama (Columbia Tusculum) and Laura Hughes (Cheviot and Wyoming), she is not planning a retirement party anytime soon.

    "I'm here when my recitals are so I can see how my students are doing - all of May and three weeks in June," Ms. von Oettingen says. By the first of July, she's at her Eagle Bay Ballet Camp in the Adirondack Mountains in New York where she teaches until Labor Day. Then it's back to teach in Cincinnati through October. One Nov. 1 she drives to her home in Largo, Fla., to wait out the winter, swimming, cooking and watching National Geographic travel videos. "I'm isolated in Largo," Ms. von Oettingen says, "and I get blue some days. But I'm not a person who enjoys going ballroom dancing or shopping in the mall or playing bridge. I like swimming, going to the beach - I'm a long-distance swimmer. I like to listen to music."

    Leaving the past

    Ms. von Oettingen was 30 when she moved from Germany to Cincinnati in 1947 with her children, 4-year-old Cornelia and 6-year-old Tyll. She left Berlin, a city broken by war, with no word of her husband, Friedrich-Karl Sass. He was declared missing in action during World War II.

    She left behind friends, parents and two brothers, trying to shake the memories of frightening air raids and frantic sprints to the basement to hide. Her sister, Barbara, had already settled in Cincinnati; their parents joined them a year later.

    In Germany, she had started dance lessons at 4, was teaching others by 11 and began directing a dance company at 16. When the bombs began falling, she had 500 students.

    "We had ballet dancing during the day," she recalls. "Air raids would sound and we would run to the basement. Once the all-clear sound came, we had to go back to the studio and pretend nothing had happened.

    "We were all under orders - musicians and artists, too - from the German Arts Council's Joseph Goebbels to go on. Parents always worried when they dropped their children off for me to teach. They hoped Anneliese wouldn't get bombed that day."

    Getting recognition

    Ms. von Oettingen was determined to continue her dance career in the States. Never mind that she spoke no English, had no money and two children, and eventually her parents, to take care of.

    She started small, but within a year had located a huge 60- by 40-foot automobile showroom to rent, this one at Peebles Corner in Walnut Hills. At this point she began to feel she could teach the way she really wanted - open and free. Her students had the room to jump. She finally felt secure for the first time since the war.

    Like teachers everywhere, much of Ms. von Oettingen's work has been out of the spotlight, but her accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. In May, a celebration to honor her 50-year anniversary is scheduled at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, downtown.

    In 1989, she was given a key to the City of Cincinnati, and a Bicentennial Plaque was placed at the site of her first ballet studio. One of the first to teach ballet to football players, she was featured in Sports Illustrated in 1977.

    "She has had a hand in the beginning of a lot of things in Cincinnati," Ms. Hughes says. "Before there was Cincinnati Ballet, there was Cincinnati Civic Ballet, which she helped establish. She recommended Oleg Sabline to (the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music)."

    Strict, with a soft heart

    Mr. Sabline, who's been synonymous with dance at CCM since 1964, says he was dancing and teaching a class in Indianapolis before he came here. With time on his hands and bills to pay, he started calling around for studios that might need a teacher.

    He picked Anneliese's name out of the Yellow Pages, and she graciously invited him to teach her students the classic ballet Les Sylphides. Later, with CCM looking for new leadership (their dance program was in a shambles, Mr. Sabline says), Ms. von Oettingen suggested Mr. Sabline.

    "You can turn to the Yellow Pages now and see teachers all over Cincinnati who were Anneliese students," Ms. Hughes says. "Her influence runs the risk of almost being forgotten, because she chose to stay with studio teaching, but I think she's made a difference in this area in many ways."

    One of those students found in the local phone book is Janet Carleton, with a studio in Mount Healthy. She remembers Ms. von Oettingen as a strict teacher with a soft heart.

    "Anneliese gives generously - free advice and free classes when money's tight. And you learn a lot more than just dancing - technique and music for sure, but also life lessons, like perseverance. She's a wonderful role model," she says.

    Ms. Carleton says when Ms. von Oettingen first arrived here, she didn't drive and would often have to hitch a ride with others. This ran contrary to her independent nature, so she bought a mo-ped and could be seen scooting all over Cincinnati with hair flying in the breeze.

    Jack Louiso says Ms. von Oettingen was strong-willed and could be a dance tyrant, but credits her for his career. He's had a long one - dancing, teaching, choreographing and currently directing Cincinnati Children's Theatre.

    "She was the major influence on my career," he says. "I was always a performer, but I needed technique. She gave me that, and that gave me longevity. She's a very straight-forward teacher and a stickler for technique. She gives her students a strong foundation."

    Life at camp

    Like a proud parent, she pulls out photos of her students at Eagle Bay. There's one of her in the lake, taken last year, standing on her head underwater, with toes stretching skyward. She explains she's trying to teach the students how to point their toes.

    Ms. Hughes says Ms. von Oettingen broke her back a few years ago while hiking, but lately she seems more vigorous than ever.

    Time was she did all the cooking at Eagle Bay, but others have taken over those duties. She still serves up dishes she's famous for, like her "flicker-clops," a sloppy-joe dish served with mashed potatoes instead of a bun.

    A typical day at Eagle Bay starts at 7 a.m. with a jog or a walk, a two- or three-hour class, down to the lake for a swim, a break for lunch, then rest hour, which usually means a canoe trip or a hike or sightseeing, and more classes in the evening.

    Everyone gathers in a large cabin for dinner where Ms. von Oettingen teaches etiquette and tells stories. While explaining which fork to pick up first, she confides she learned table manners from a real German princess, her playmate as a child. There are wild tales of her son, Tyll, and the exotic pets he kept as a kid, including an alligator and coyote.

    Today, Tyll runs a scuba diving company in Honduras and begs his mom to come for a visit.

    "He wants me to come because he says I could show the tourists how to really swim, especially the ones from Chicago, who for some reason are terrible swimmers," she says.

    Until recently she had done laps in the ocean, a few blocks from her Largo home. After she noticed sharks swimming nearby, she started doing her laps in a pool.

    Long search for her husband

    Daughter Cornelia taught dance for 35 years in her mom's studios, but retired a few years ago to give full time to mothering her six children. She lives in College Hill.

    Ms. von Oettingen never remarried and says she searched a long time for her husband.

    "We tried very hard to get a message through the Red Cross. I was very hopeful all these years he would come back, but it was not our luck. People say to me 30 years ago, 'Anneliese, you're not over it?' I'm not over it yet. How do you get over it?"

    Some things you don't get over, but you go on. She says she's been a very lucky woman.

    "When I first came, I was offered help to settle in New York City, but I wouldn't do it. I didn't want a city with any more high buildings. Besides with Cincinnati I had good luck - this is a very artistic and good city."