Beloved Alexandria dance instructor Grace Manly Machanic dies at 81

Beloved Alexandria dance instructor Grace Manly Machanic dies at 81
Grace Machanic founded popular local dance studio School for Swans in the 70s (Courtesy Photo)

By Denise Dunbar |

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated with service arrangements for Grace Manly Machanic. 

Grace Manly Machanic died Aug. 17 of a pulmonary embolism suffered in her Alexandria home. She was 81.

Machanic was a well-known and beloved ballet instructor who taught generations of children at her School for Swans studio, which she started in 1975.

Longtime friend and former business partner Judy Rhodes Calgaro said Machanic had a special gift for teaching children.

“She treated every child as special from the moment they came to her until the moment they came on the stage,” Calgaro said. “She transported the children to fairyland in every class.”

Calgaro said Machanic’s love of life manifested itself in all facets of her life, but particularly in teaching dance.

“She just had that natural stage presence and would glow [onstage],” Calgaro said. “She gave that to her students. She was so joyful in dance, in what she did and she shared her gifts.”

The Machanics at the 2001 wedding of a family friend. Pictured from left to right: Roger Machanic, Laura Machanic, Grace Machanic, Bruce Machanic and Susan Redding Machanic (Courtesy Photo)

Steve Harris got to know Machanic when they did community theatre together in the early 1980s. He was immediately struck by her energy and optimism.

“She just had this young vitalness about her that transcended generations. She had that kind of energy, that kind of spirit,” Harris said. “She was just optimistic beyond reason.”

In addition to teaching dance, friends said Machanic was a talented performer and choreographer.

“As a performer, she was sparkling,” Calgaro said. “She just lit up the stage.”

“She had that x factor kind of stage presence,” Harris concurred.

According to Calgaro, Machanic directed the Arlington Dance Theatre School and performed the Nutcracker at Thomas Jefferson High School.

Daughter Laura Machanic said Grace Machanic also served on the board of the Little Theatre of Alexandria and choreographed a number of shows both there and at Bishop Ireton High School.

Calgaro emphasized what a caring friend Machanic was.

“She was always the first person to be there when someone was in a crisis,” she said.

Grace Machanic on a family vacation in Boothbay Harbor, Maine (Courtesy Photo)

“There’s no one more loyal and dedicated. She was dedicated in everything.”

Harris stressed Machanic’s humility as a performer.

“She never competed,” he said, “She would dance in the chorus and she was as happy as if she was dancing the lead in ‘Swan Lake.’”

“She embodied her name,” Harris said. “She was the personification of grace.”

Grace Wishart Manly was born Jan. 19, 1936 in Lynchburg, Virginia. She began dancing at an early age and continued studying ballet after her family moved to the District of Columbia in 1950. One of her grandfathers, Charles Manly, was an engineer who was involved in early efforts to invent the airplane.

She graduated from Bethesda Chevy Chase High School in 1954 and from Madison State Teacher’s College, now James Madison University, in 1958 with a Bachelors of Science in Education. She taught English at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda for several years, while maintaining her passion for dance.

She married her husband, Roger Machanic, in 1963 and they settled in Old Town, where they raised their children, Bruce and Laura.

Laura Machanic said it is part of her family’s lore that as her parents were walking out of the church on their wedding day, amid cheers and showers of rice, Roger leaned over and whispered into Grace’s ear, “Grace, I quit my job.”

Married in April, they were unable to take a proper honeymoon because of Grace’s teaching duties, which included chaperoning English students to Europe in the summertime.

Roger went along in the summer of 1963. Laura said Roger lamented, “We had 20 kids with us on our honeymoon. Some honeymoon.”

The memorial service for Grace will be held on Thursday, Oct. 5. The service will begin with a celebration of life service at 3 p.m. at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at 228 S. Pitt St., a reception at St. Paul’s Norton Hall at 4 p.m., an “Encore for Grace” performance at the Little Theatre of Alexandria at 600 Wolfe St. and a dessert reception at 7 p.m.

Machanic was preceded in death by her husband Roger and her parents, Charles Matthews Manly and Flora Eames Cox. She is survived by her son, Bruce Machanic, and his wife, Susan Redding Machanic, of Arlington, Virginia; daughter, Laura Machanic, and her husband, Tom Dabney, of Alexandria; grandchildren Kathryn R. Machanic and Tyler R. Machanic; step-grandchildren Emory Dabney and Steven Dabney; sister Trammell Maury of Kensington, Maryland; and numerous devoted nieces, nephews and friends.