Young at Art: Alice Dustin
Young at Art: Alice Dustin – septuagenarian, artist and trapeze aerialist
By Linda Stein
Lower Merion >> Alice Dustin is a petite woman who conveys boundless amounts of energy.
Gregarious and with an infectious laugh, the 74-year-old Ardmore resident flies through life, literally on a trapeze.
Yes. That’s right. She started taking classes at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts when she turned 63, after nearly a decade spent learning judo.
Dustin, who holds a doctorate in romance languages from the University of Pennsylvania, has taught French in various area schools including Baldwin and Agnes Irwin and Villanova University and also taught English as a second language in the Philadelphia School District. A prolific artist whose work, including still life’s and landscapes, is available at the Gallery DeVlieger in Bryn Mawr, and at two galleries in Delaware, Dustin has taught oil painting at Main Line School Night since 1999.
“I adore doing that,” she said about teaching there. “It’s wonderful.”
“I have not gone to art school,” Dustin said, although she has taken classes, including at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). “I started painting, seriously painting, in 1997, but the fact is that it is something that’s in me and I drew as a kid from before I could probably even talk, really young.”
At that time paper towels were “stiff and hard” and she drew on those and also on shelf paper.
“When I was at college (Mount Holyoke), the studio arts were frowned upon,” she said. “That was not considered serious. Serious would be art history. My freshman year I took a class in art history but I was totally turned off. I felt that was a name dropping game. We didn’t look at real art. We looked at slides. I really want to look at a painting and learn all about it.”
So she majored in French.
Asked about her athletic prowess, Dustin allowed that she’d been a cheer leader in middle school in Tuckahoe, N.Y., but said that she had never had lessons as a child except for piano.
“Kids didn’t have lessons in those days or not in our socioeconomic group,” she said. But she started judo lessons at 50 but quit at 59, afraid that she might be injured after hurting a finger during a competition.
“I’m not a natural at any of these things,” said Dustin. “I suppose I must be athletic.”
As a freshman in 1960 at Mount Holyoke, a women’s college, in “our very first gym class, this is just hysterical, what we learned to do was, and I still remember this, was how to sit in a chair. And how to put your luggage on a train. That was gym.”
“The main thing was, it’s very gauche to look at the chair so you go up to the chair (she demonstrated backing up to a chair) and back up to it and feel the back of the chair with the back of your knees and then you know you’re above it. You don’t have to look down. And then you sit and cross your legs at the ankles.” Dustin laughed. For the luggage “you look for a handsome young man in the compartment and you ask him to do it.” More laughter rang out.
Although, “They thought they were teaching us that we could be anything and do anything.
At the time, I felt in my heart I could do anything. I could be president.” But she realized that her choices in jobs were secretary, nurse or teacher. She tried being a secretary for a day and hated it and faints at the sight of blood, so teaching it was.
When Dustin, who with her husband, Peter Dustin, a retired architect, has lived in Ardmore since 1977, turned 50 she decided to learn to ride a unicycle. It took six months but she did it.
“When I turned 60, again I thought if 50 is old, 60 is really old,” Dustin said. “So then I decided to learn to juggle.” She went to a jugglers’ club that meets Monday nights in Philadelphia and learned that one of the juggler’s wives had a circus school and they did trapeze — so I introduced myself.”
She was inspired by a picture in her husband’s alumni magazine of a young woman on a trapeze who was “capable and courageous. She was talented and skilled. So I grabbed a canvas and made a painting of her.”
“It was about that time, the (Philadelphia School of Circus Arts) was having a show so I went to the show,” said Dustin. “And I guess, probably I’m not like everybody else. Instead of just enjoying, I went, ‘Oh, man, that looks like fun. I’m going to try.’ So I walked up to her afterward and said, ‘Can I try this?’”
“The whole aerial thing, trapeze, silks, just because it looked like fun and it was,” said Dustin, who also admitted that she is afraid of heights. “In some ways you get a little bit used to it and in some ways you never do. But going to the gym and exercising is a little bit boring. Doing the judo was wonderful. It’s spontaneous — you act, react and it’s wonderfully physical. I love working with other bodies. It’s fun. Crashing into them.”
“The circus is much more choreographed,” she said. “You don’t do things that you don’t know what’s going to happen. You plan it and you practice it.”
Dustin has performed in more than 20 shows and usually plays a character and interacts with the audience because the other performers are much younger.
“How can my body compete with 20 year olds or 30 year olds with their incredible flexibility?” she asked. “It’s challenging and you can improve. At this stage, improving is something in the mind.”
Most days Dustin paints at home with the company of her dog, Daisy. Her studio is in her basement. There is a “social aspect” to the circus that she enjoys.
“Alice Dustin has been a student of mine for 11 years,” said Shana Kennedy, executive director of the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts. “She started in her 60s. She has a remarkable energy and drive for all of the circus disciplines. She’s an inspiration to all of us to realize age is not the limitation as we think it is.”
“Circus is an art form that can accommodate all types of bodies,” said Kennedy. “It’s a performing art meant to be creative … expressing something with performing arts skills. She’s done everything.”
Dustin met her husband, Peter, when they were both students at Penn.
“On our first date [is] when we cemented our relationship. A distant relative of his had invited us to dinner…And the dinner wasn’t quite ready yet,” Dustin said. “So she said, ‘Why don’t you go out to the school playing field.’ We both saw it and thought that’s a great space and we both started doing handstands. And that was it. We were a good match.”
The couple has two grown children. A daughter, Melissa, who is a lawyer but is home schooling her two girls ages 10 and 7. Her son, John, is a doctor in family practice in Indiana, and the father of four boys ages 3 to 10.
The extremely creative Dustin has written, illustrated and hand bound numerous children’s books for her grandchildren. And she’s on the board of Philadelphia Tri/State Artists Equity. Until recently her murals of the old train station were displayed on the Wawa in North Ardmore that is now undergoing renovation.