Mary Ellen Terry

Dancer in a Phone Booth

A study in flexibility and poise ― in a tight space.

Today, when smartphones have conquered the globe, a phone booth might seem an oddity ― a cramped, musty relic. But for much of the last century, these booths were more than drab, utilitarian boxes; for countless people, they served as private hubs for conducting business, making appointments (romantic and otherwise), and connecting with family and friends. In 1952, photographer Gordon Parks spied dancer Mary Ellen Terry on a phone, chatting away. Somehow, in the pictures he made that day, the public phone booth never looked cozier ― or more downright sociable.

Mary Ellen Terry danced her way into the hearts of Americans in the 1950s, performing on programs like "The Paul Winchell Show," "Music Hall," and "Sea Hunt." Gordon Parks/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images Mary Ellen Terry danced her way into the hearts of Americans in the 1950s, performing on programs like "The Paul Winchell Show," "Music Hall," and "Sea Hunt." The man behind the camera for these pictures was one of the most celebrated photographers of the 20th century. A musician, writer, and formidable photojournalist, Gordon Parks was the first African American staff photographer at LIFE magazine; the director of the 1971 blaxploitation classic, "Shaft" (among other films); and a recipient of the National Medal of Arts, the NAACP Image Award, and many other honors. Like any working photographer, Parks tackled jobs of all sorts, and if that involved taking some shots of a dancer in a phone booth, so be it. Gordon Parks/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images The man behind the camera for these pictures was one of the most celebrated photographers of the 20th century. A musician, writer, and formidable photojournalist, Gordon Parks was the first African American staff photographer at LIFE magazine; the director of the 1971 blaxploitation classic, "Shaft" (among other films); and a recipient of the National Medal of Arts, the NAACP Image Award, and many other honors. Like any working photographer, Parks tackled jobs of all sorts, and if that involved taking some shots of a dancer in a phone booth, so be it. Some, but not all, of the photos here ran in the November 24, 1952, issue of LIFE, as one installment in a long-running feature called "Speaking of Pictures ..." Gordon Parks/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images Some, but not all, of the photos here ran in the November 24, 1952, issue of LIFE, as one installment in a long-running feature called "Speaking of Pictures ..." Noting that most people find phone booths "cramping and confining," LIFE informed its readers that Terry found this one "a handy place not only for talking but taking a constitutional. Flinging her limbs about with an abandon that belies the narrowness of her niche, Miss Terry chats with friends, ticket brokers and teachers as though warming up for a performance of 'Swan Lake.'" Gordon Parks/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images Noting that most people find phone booths "cramping and confining," LIFE informed its readers that Terry found this one "a handy place not only for talking but taking a constitutional. Flinging her limbs about with an abandon that belies the narrowness of her niche, Miss Terry chats with friends, ticket brokers and teachers as though warming up for a performance of 'Swan Lake.'" "She did not realize she was being photographed at first," the magazine noted, "but even after she sensed what Parks was doing she continued phoning in her uninhibited way." Let's give thanks for the charming self-possession of the seasoned performer. Gordon Parks/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images "She did not realize she was being photographed at first," the magazine noted, "but even after she sensed what Parks was doing she continued phoning in her uninhibited way." Let's give thanks for the charming self-possession of the seasoned performer.