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 under Edna McRae at the Fine Arts Building. Described as “tough,” Edna encouraged her students to be well-rounded in the arts – Barbara learned piano, French vocabulary, and how to perform, dancing at places like the Museum of Science and Industry. After graduating high school, Barbara moved to New York City, where she joined American Ballet Theatre. While touring Europe, she quickly progressed through the ranks of the company and danced a featured role in Graduation Ball, but her career was cut short when she was hit by a truck in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1953.
For Barbara, this injury was anything but limiting. Bedridden for three and a half months at age 18, she spent her time reading and researching the company she was too busy to learn about while actually dancing. As she explained, “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 studied psychology and clinical therapy. She served as a counselor at the Chicago Academy for the Arts in what she called the “gig of her life.” Working with young dancers, Barbara was able to combine her love for clinical therapy and dance. “They spoke my language there, and I spoke theirs.”
-Catrien Egbert and Hélène Lupa