Salisbury Studio of Dance
Betty Webster has followed the same routine for 50 years. Six days a week, she’s at her dance studio, the Salisbury Studio of Dance in Fruitland, Maryland, making sure everything is running smoothly. She also keeps an eye on the student company she founded 19 years ago, Eastern Shore Ballet Theatre.
“It’s my life. I love it dearly,” says Webster, now 84. “I always wanted to share my love of dance.” Though Elena Manakhova-Amy is now the upper-level teacher for the studio and
company, Webster still heads the school and teaches ballet class to the 6- to 8-year-olds, three days a week.
Webster grew up in West Virginia and studied with highly renowned teachers, including Caroline Littlefield, Leon Fokine (nephew of Michel), John Sergieff, Madame Nina Niketina and Marion Venable. Watching ballerina Vera Zorina in a film excerpt choreographed by George Balanchine ultimately inspired Webster to make dance her career. “I was just mesmerized. I knew at that moment that I wanted to somehow do that. I wanted to create dances and I wanted to train dancers,” Webster says.
After high school she performed with several regional companies, then married and started a family. (None of her five children are dancers, but over the years they’ve all assisted their mother in various aspects of the school or the company, from teaching to providing legal services.)
It wasn’t until the family moved to Salisbury, MD, that Webster decided to open a studio. “I wanted to get back to teaching,” she says. “I loved dance so much, I couldn’t be away from it.”
She started the school with 35 students and at its highest point had 360 enrolled. Today, 200 students take classes in ballet, tap and jazz. Her students have been accepted in major dance programs like the School of American Ballet, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC. Several have gone on to professional careers in television and with major companies like Dance Theatre of Harlem, Pacific Northwest Ballet and North Carolina Dance Theatre.
Yet Webster says that for a long time she felt something was missing. She wanted to give her more serious students crucial performing opportunities. Finally, in the fall of 1991 she formed Eastern Shore Ballet Theatre, with Tatiana Akinfieva-Smith as artistic director.
“We had no money when we started, but we had faith and determination,” Webster says. “I knew that we had to do this. Our students were ready to do more than just the recitals. And I felt there was a need in the community for the level of dancing I wanted to do.”
The company currently has 55 dancers, from ages 9 to 18. They present The Nutcracker and a spring production every year and perform for community benefits and festivals.
Today, Webster continues to instill in her students a respect for the solid foundation in ballet that she was brought up with. “I can’t jump as high as I used to, but I still jump. And I have one of the older girls come in to demonstrate grand pliés. Otherwise I’ll have cramps when I get home,” Webster says. “But I love what I do, even though I’m trying to slow down a little now.”
“I’m very strict,” she adds. “That hasn’t changed from when I started. I make sure my students know that the basics don’t change. They remain the most important thing in your training.”
Photo by Ginger Springer, courtesy of Salisbury School of Dance