Betty Webster still moved by her dancing passion


These days, Betty Webster isn’t as busy teaching and running the Salisbury Dance Academy.

At the age of 90, she stays involved, though, planning and promoting events, like the Eastern Shore Ballet Theatre’s annual Nutcracker Ballet, its signature event that, every Christmas season for more than 25 years, has attracted hundreds.

At home, the mother of four daughters and one son listens to music during the day and makes sure she completes morning exercises.

“Sometimes I even dance a little,” said Webster, affectionately known as Miss Betty, as she moved gracefully at the bar in the studio and talked with guests at the Salisbury School of Dance she opened more than nearly 60 years ago, stopping from time to time to greet a student or chat with an employee.

Brown-eyed and with graying hair, Webster wore red slacks and a matching top, black shoes and black shawl over her shoulders. Around her neck a ballerina pendant hung from a gold chain. “It was a gift from an old boyfriend,” she said, laughing.

In honor of her 90 years of life, the production “Legacy of Dance, A Tribute to Betty Webster,” will be presented at 7 p.m. on April 1 at Wicomico High School. It will feature her favorite dances and selections she choreographed.

As she sits on stage, there will be a red, white and blue processional, honoring her loyal patriotism, and bestowal of 90 flowers in shades of pink, her favorite color. For ticket information, see www.esbt.org.

A native of West Virginia, where her father toiled in coal mines, Webster is one of 10 children — five boys and five girls — cared for by their mother, who instilled in them love for the arts.

“We all danced. My parents would have big parties and we would sing and dance. All the talent was from my mother’s side of the family,” she said, recalling poetry her mother taught the children, including verse about a woman who warned her daughter against a suitor named Billy, until she found he had money.

“Billy is a lovely lad and no doubt loves you dearly,” Webster repeated.

“Dancing is in our genes. We were always great dancers. We were jitterbugging. I took to it like a duck to water, just like this,” she said, clapping her hands.

In her purse, she found an envelope containing photographs. “That’s my brother John and me,” she said, pointing to a well-dressed couple, hand in hand, jitterbugging.

“I’m living down in the mountains of West Virginia in a little village called War, W.Va., not even near the capital. I had seen a movie, I don’t know, maybe The Ziegfeld Follies. It might have been something with George Ballantine starring in it. I saw this beautiful ballet. I never saw such beautiful shoes. When I saw that, it touched my heart. I was in high school, maybe 10th grade,” she said.

When she got a little older, Webster traveled to Washington, D.C., to study at the Venable School of Classical Ballet and danced with the National Ballet there.

“I was just a little ballerina dreaming of sugarplums. I knew I had landed in the right place,” she said.

There, she met her future husband, Walter Webster, who later practiced law in Salisbury. He introduced himself to her after a performance.

When they married, she moved to Salisbury with him. Later, they divorced and she continued to raise their five children as a single parent, never remarrying.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” she said with a firm nod. “It pushed me into opening the dance school.”

That was in 1959. Then, 26 years ago, she opened the Eastern Shore Ballet Theater, and is now president.

During her career, Webster studied with Leon Folkine, John Sergieff, Madame Nina Niketina and Marion al Venable in Washington, D.C., choreographed and staged productions with local groups and charities and been invited to teach locally and nationally.

“When I opened the dancing school, I had been talking to my daughter and I said I wanted to start a ballet company. Before I opened here, I was on the river behind the library with a concrete floor. Jack Causey, he found this building for me in 1975. It was a church. By the time everything was done, all the renovation and everything, it was 1976 or 1977,” she said.

It was the era of disco dancing.

“Oh, I loved it. That disco (music) took my heart away. I had a good partner at that time. We danced up and down the East Coast,” she said, laughing.

It was a lot of work.

“It’s easy when your heart is there,” she said.

Daughter Pam helped her teach preschoolers and daughter Meg organized ballet competitions and oversaw legal requirements.

When Webster began presenting the Nutcracker in 1991, “We didn’t have a dollar. We didn’t have one cent. We bought a mail-out list and sent out requests for donations. We got about $3,000. People donated for the new company. The Nutcracker has always paid for itself,” she said.

The first sugarplum fairy, she recalled, was Kimberly Crowder Dyer, who now lives with her husband in Easton. Meg recruited the first Snow Prince. Every year, three productions are at Wicomico High School and three professional dancers invited.

In 2010, Webster sold the school to Elena Manakhova, a guest artist with Eastern Shore Ballet Theatre from 1997 to 2001 who had danced roles of Sugar Plum in The Nutcracker and performed in the Dying Swan, a spring gala.

Webster continued to teach for three years after selling, but declined to accept a fourth year because she was caring for her daughter, who had been diagnosed with cancer.

Every year since the dancing school opened, about 300 students aged 3 to 18 have studied ballet, with 235 enrolled now. Two of them are boys.

Webster, who clearly remembers and is proud of her dancers, said several are performing in New York City now.

“One of my students, Davon Doane, started taking lessons with me when he was 9 years old. That child never looked back. He is now with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Also, Shelby Traum. She is with the New York City Dance Company. One of my young men, Jerry Pines, is in the Oklahoma City Ballet now. I tried to instill in them the love, the love for dance,” she said.

“Dancing is a tremendous social outlet. There is nothing like going out with groups of people who you know and dancing the hours away. It builds discipline and it’s such good exercise. I have danced so hard. If they dropped me in the middle of the Congo I could dance right along with them. I would. I could and I would. The arts feed the soul and dance is one of the great arts,” she said.

“Because of dance, I’ve had a lovely life,” she said.

“First of all, the Lord has been good to me and I have been surrounded by beauty. When I started the Eastern Shore Ballet Theater, more beauty flooded into my life. I hope one day we’re on better financial footing and that we become a permanent part of the Eastern Shore. I want it to become part of the culture of the community,” she said.

“But it has been a lovely life. And I still love it.”

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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