Born in 1897 in the house remembered as Dunbar Funeral Home on Gervais Street, Columbia, Isabel Whaley Sloan started teaching ballroom dancing and social etiquette when she was 17 years old in 1914. For three-quarters of a century, generations of children, including Gov. Henry McMaster, flocked to her classes. Sloan was also well-known for organizing dances and social events for thousands of servicemen who were stationed at Fort Jackson during World War II.
Isabel Sloan, who taught dancing and social etiquette in Orangeburg for more than 35 years, will be remembered at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 10, at the Richland Library, 1431 Assembly St., Columbia.
A new book, South Carolina dances with Isabel Whaley Sloan, will be discussed and illustrated with a PowerPoint presentation by Dr. Gene Atkinson of Orangeburg.
Richard Durlach and Breedlove from the Big Apple will dress in vintage costumes to demonstrate the Sloan and Simpson Zimmerman dance style. A Sloan-style reception will follow, and the water-color cover painting by Barbara Yongue will be on display. Copies of the book will be available to purchase and to be signed by Atkinson. The book is also available on Amazon. The program is sponsored by the Columbia Genealogy Chapter.
Out-of-town classes started in Orangeburg in 1949 at the request of former Columbians living there. By 1967, Isabel Sloan was teaching classes in almost a dozen towns and cities around South Carolina and driving more than 20,000 miles a year.
Isabel followed the same format that she had been using in Columbia.
“(Isabel) asked my mother (Mrs. W.C. “Boogie” Ziegler) to play the piano for the classes” in Orangeburg, Hattee Ziegler Christian said. “Mrs. Ed (Clifton) Mann was in charge and had gotten Isabel to Orangeburg,” Christian remembered.
“When Clifton died (in 1960) and my mother took over, I remember her sitting in the den for interminable sessions of ‘getting up the classes.’
“And then there would be the frantic calls from mothers who had just heard about Mrs. Sloan's classes and just had to get their child on the list. After my mother died, we found many legal pads of names and phone numbers from those days in her things.”
Orangeburg was always 6th, 7th, and 8th grades only, but Isabel stopped the 8th grade classes in Orangeburg in 1960, according to Dr. Gene Atkinson, who was one of her students. Classes were originally taught at the old Country Club and through the years were shortened to the 6th and 7th grades, and probably just the 6th grade in the end, Atkinson said.
“Mrs. Sloan and Simpson Zimmerman came to Orangeburg for about 35 years,” according to Atkinson. “They stopped coming in the mid-1980s—not due to Mrs. Sloan’s age—but Simpson, who was about 30 years younger, felt uncomfortable driving out of town at night.”
“Boogie” Ziegler was the Orangeburg coordinator for many years as well as the pianist at the ballroom classes all those years, and classes were held in the Woodmen of the World (WOW) Hall on Fair Street near the Ellis Avenue School.
There would be an annual party where they would serve punch and cookies, according to Boogie Ziegler. “Isabel always used the finest serving pieces such as a silver punch bowl and ladle. The plates were always clear glass as were the cups for the punch,” she said.
“Everyone looked forward to the annual costume dance where everyone would be dressed in very elaborate costumes,” Atkinson said. “They would judge these costumes and give prizes to the winners. The local paper, The Times and Democrat, usually was there to take pictures and report on the dance.“
Christian remembered Isabel’s clothes and style. “We marveled at Mrs. Sloan's dresses and, especially, her shoes,” Christian said. “She was the epitome of elegance. She would address us in a low-pitched, drawn out ‘Boys and Ghurls,’ sort of Lauren Bacall-esque. And she took no guff. Her tone and manner never changed but she definitely kept control.”
Clothes were an important part of the dance lessons. Girls wore party dresses and lace ruffled socks, Mary Jane shoes and white gloves, and the boys wore dark blue blazers, dress pants and always a tie.
Unhappy about the dress code and having to take dancing lessons, Bobb Hane realized that there was something even worse than wearing a coat and tie on Thursday nights. “I would have to take two showers on Thursday!” he said. “Two! One before school and one before ballroom dancing.”
Isabel’s long-time assistant Simpson Zimmerman was a freshman at the University of South Carolina when he began helping Isabel in 1939. By 1960, Isabel and Simpson had become partners and had incorporated the school to teach basic ballroom dancing and the social graces.
The costume balls were favorites of everyone. “There were costumes of every hue, every description, and of varying degrees of inventiveness,” the Times and Democrat reported. “It was lots of fun … for parents, friends, teachers… and most of all, for the young people themselves.”
“Most of the dances were the two-step, fox trot, the waltz and the shag. Occasionally they did the polka, The Charleston, The Twist, and other dances,” Atkinson said.
“Some of the dances were to the newest records that Simpson would buy and play over their PA system. Others were to the piano music of Mrs. Ziegler.”
Everyone also remembers Isabel’s whistle.
“Whenever Mrs. Sloan saw several people dancing wrong or were misbehaving, the whistle would blow, the music stopped, and she would announce the corrections,” Atkinson said. “Or she and Simpson would dance to show the students the correct way.”
The values conveyed in Isabel’s classes never wavered.
Warner Montgomery said, “We learned to be polite. Being polite was a major part of what she taught.” Montgomery remembers having to walk across the floor to ask a girl to dance. “And we had to bow and ask her to dance, and she could say ‘no’.” Even though he doesn’t remember any girl ever saying ‘no’ to him, “that could be total embarrassment,” he said.
Montgomery remembers one girl who was a lot taller than he was. “I eventually equaled her size,” he said, but it was a problem for a 6th grader who didn’t know how to dance with someone twice his size. “I guess she’s still around,” he said, “but I’m taller than she is now.”
Atkinson recalled, “Most of the dances were the two-step, the waltz, and the shag. Occasionally we did the polka, the Charleston, the Twist, and other dances.”
Some of the dances were to the newest records that Simpson Zimmerman, Isabel’s longtime partner, played over their public-address system, Atkinson said. “Others (in Orangeburg) were to “Boogie” Ziegler,’s piano music. Whenever Sloan saw several people dancing wrong or misbehaving, the whistle would blow, the music would stop, and she would announce the corrections. Or she and Simpson would dance to show the students the correct way.”
Sloan also played a key role in entertaining the troops at Fort Jackson during World War II. She became the coordinator for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) War Services Recreation Program and supervisor of the city’s dance programs.
The city was entertaining 100,000 servicemen each month, most of whom visited the USO. Isabel was the official hostess at many of the events.
On one occasion, Isabel hosted a dance for 1,600 soldiers and as many girls at Township Auditorium. Her most memorable ball was a Christmas dance at Fort Jackson. The hundreds of soldiers attending the dance were packed and ready to spend holidays with their families, but shortly before the music started, they learned they were headed overseas instead.
“My, they were a sad-faced bunch of boys,” recalled Isabel, who bribed the orchestra into playing two more hours. “Then I accompanied each young lady to her door and, if necessary, told her parents what had happened. By the time I got home myself, my husband had the police searching for me.”
Isabel Sloan played a significant role in the lives of debutantes. A debutante herself who had made her debut in the fall of 1916, Isabel was involved in the organization of the balls for the rest of her life.
Isabel directed the Debutante Figure and the Grand March at the First Orangeburg Assembly Ball in 1961 and continued to participate until she stopped coming to Orangeburg.
Isabel never retired, according to her business partner Simpson Zimmerman, and some of her students took up where she left off. Rosemary McGee was one of the students who followed in her footsteps. McGee took dancing lessons from Isabel in Orangeburg when she was in the sixth and seventh grade. “(Mrs. Sloan) used to come from Columbia to teach us,” she said. “That’s just something we all did. The teachers wore those chiffon prom gowns… We had live music and wore party dresses and white gloves at every class.”
Isabel “taught ballroom dancing in Orangeburg forever,” McGee said, but when Isabel retired, Beth Lee Hewitt took over for a couple of years before McGee, Margaret Barnwell and Ruth Horger began teaching etiquette and dancing in January 1989. Horger retired about three years later, leaving McGee and Barnwell in charge of the courses.
McGee and Margaret Barnwell have maintained the standards set by Isabel Sloan and have been pleased with the results they have seen in students and the feedback they have gotten from parents and teachers.
“When we started, we just decided that we need to simplify it. I think the dances are a lot more informal anyway, but manners are still important.” McGee said.
Barnwell said, “I’ve gone out there and done the Electric Slide with them and not been able to move the next morning. We’ve learned some dances, like the Cha-Cha Stompo or whatever it is, some line dances and all.”
“This class is a harder sell for boys than for girls,” McGee said. “They think that getting dressed up and dancing with girls are not for them,” she said. “But once they get involved in the class, they become more enthusiastic and end up really enjoying it.”
Barnwell said, “And we’ve had mothers tell us that their sons start opening doors for them or complimenting them, so we know that they use what we teach them away from the class. That makes me feel good to hear that.”
McGee and Barnwell also have made the culminating activity for the class a formal dinner at the country club with all the trimmings—fine china and fine linens. And the students get to wear their nicest clothes.
One year, all the boys in the class showed up at the annual end-session dinner at the Country Club wearing tuxedos and in a limousine.
McGee said, “We want as many students as possible to have this. Today life is so fast and furious, and we try to reinforce what manners the children are being taught at home. These students will eventually end up dating or in sports activities, and we think it’s good for them to get to know one another in a non-competitive setting. Ultimately, I want them to remember that good manners will take them where money can’t. And we want them to become thoughtful, considerate adults.”
Isabel had certain rules that every student learned:
• A gentleman always stands when a lady approaches.
• A lady always waits to be asked to dance.
• A gentleman always takes off his hat before he goes indoors.
• A lady always wears gloves at a social event.
• A gentleman will always be certain that every lady present has the opportunity to dance.
• A lady only crosses her legs at the ankles.
• And anyone with good manners will both greet his or her host and hostess and then, at the end of the evening, thank them for a lovely time.
Sloan continued to teach dancing and social etiquette until she was in her late 80s, and she remained interested in watching and providing information until she died September 17, 1991. She was almost 94. Zimmerman, who was her partner for 52 years, said she never retired.