Bette White Fernandez first graced the pages of DT—then called Dance Teacher Now—in its inaugural “Spotlight on Successful Teachers” (Summer 1979). And the former Rockette has remained true to her life’s work. Only briefly sidelined after undergoing heart surgery earlier this year, 80-year-old White is now in her 56th year of teaching.
Beginning her dance training at age 8, the Wilmington, Delaware, native relocated to New York City after high school to study with legendary teachers like Martha Graham, Hanya Holm and Luigi. White held several teaching jobs at various studios before founding the Bette White Dance Center in Maplewood, New Jersey, in the early 1970s. (Back then, her monthly rent was only $275 and her ballet, tap, modern, jazz and adult disco classes cost just $3 each!) The studio is still in business, but it is now in the hands of a former student, which White couldn’t be happier about.
Today, the mother of five teaches tap in Long Branch, NJ, where she lives and also performs with the Jersey Shore Seniors Legend Showcase at local charities and fundraisers. Read on as this dedicated teacher shares her teaching joys and some career advice she wishes she’d known three decades ago.
Dance Teacher: After all of these years, what is it about teaching that keeps you going?
Bette White Fernandez: The students are my best friends; they have so much spirit. I’ve always tried to maintain the technique and discipline, but I get caught up with the students’ spirits and just having fun with them. They know I still enjoy it.
DT: What teacher influenced your style the most?
BWF: Luigi influenced me a lot. His style was a segue from jazz to modern, with these flowing movements. Luigi’s whole idea was that you should feel the movement from the inside out, and there was so much expression in his technique. It changed my choreography and the way I was teaching.
DT: Was it a challenge to balance your job while raising a family?
BWF: When my kids were very young, I’d put them on a blanket to play in the corner while I taught; I’d just incorporate them into whatever I was doing. I remember a student once asked why I put a particular kick into a routine, and it was because I had to keep stepping over a Tonka truck while I was choreographing. But my two daughters helped out and both taught when they were older.
DT: Is there anything that you know now that you wish you’d known earlier on in your career?
BWF: I remember when I first began teaching, I’d sometimes put a very shy student in the front row and then they’d drop out. I wish I had known more about human nature and people’s capacity for what they can handle—that took a while.
DT: Do you have any more advice to share with other dance teachers?
BWF: You have to remain excited about dance and not think of it as just a job. And you should really encourage your students and let them lead you. I once showed my boys’ tap class a barrel turn and said, “When you’re older, you’ll be able to do this.” Well, they all went off on their own and started trying it, saying, “Look at me, look at me!” It’s all about listening to your students.
DT: How did you feel about handing over the business you created?
BWF: A former student of mine named Dancette Pratts, who started dancing with me at age 4, is now running my studio (currently called Inspirational Dance). She has danced professionally and always wanted to own a studio, and now she’s there. And that’s the greatest reward we can have as teachers, when our students become teachers. It’s like passing the baton.
Fiona Kirk is a freelance journalist based in New York City.