Ninety-year-old dance instructor transported to a place where motion is poetry

Frances Wessells
Frances Wessells

Frances Wessells helped form the Department of Dance and Choreography at VCU and, at age 90, is still teaching — bending and stretching, swirling and dancing, defying gravity, and old age.

“People say, ‘You’re 90 years old, how are you doing this?’ Because I keep moving, and I am passionate about my life and my work,” Wessells declared.

Dance transports her, she said, moves her into an ethereal space where motion is poetry.

“I know I’m a healthier person because of it — also healthier mentally and emotionally. I think we all need to express ourselves.

“That doesn’t mean everybody has to express themselves with movement. But I believe that people who can’t express themselves in any way are missing an important aspect of life.”

James Frazier, Ed.D., MFA, chair of the Department of Dance and Choreography, said that despite her years, Wessells burns with the same energy and enthusiasm he saw in her when he joined VCU in 2001.

If he is attending a conference, and people see that he represents VCU, Frazier said he nearly always fields inquiries about Wessells.

“When I tell them Frances is still teaching, I see surprise in their expressions and the flicker of inspiration in their eyes. I think they all feel as do I: It is a gift to do what you love.”

Wessells is now in her 67th year of teaching dance, more than 34 years at VCU, but she has pared her teaching load. She now teaches a single class of improvisational dance each term to non-dance majors.

In high school, she was a chorus girl — a form of self-produced financial aid to earn money for college. She eventually enrolled in the University of Denver, benefitting from a physical education scholarship.

“My first year in college, I knew I wanted to do something with dance, but I didn’t want to be a chorus girl,” Wessells said.

Her introduction to modern dance came during her freshman year at college when “a darling little teacher” who taught only one semester ignited Wessells’ imagination.

“She went leaping across the floor. It was like seeing a horse gallop. It was beautiful, and I said, ‘That’s for me.’”

When the teacher departed, Wessells found a modern dance instructor in the community, and studied with her twice a week. She then taught what she had learned to university students.

Following graduation, Wessells moved East to earn her master’s degree in dance from New York University. Dance purists can stop right here, because what you’ll read next may stop your heart.

To help with living expenses at NYU, Wessells became an instructor in Western square dancing.

“Step right up and never let down. Swing your honey round and round!”

Wessells said she never forgot the words of one of her favorite square-dance calls, or the fun she had.

At NYU, Wessells trained under the masters of modern dance, Martha Graham and Charles Weidman. In addition, she studied every afternoon at the studio of Hanya Holm, another modern dance luminary.

Weidman, Graham and Holm had different visions of modern dance, and Wessells wanted to learn everything.

Before she arrived at VCU, Wessells taught at Sweet Briar College and the University of Richmond. Outside of the college classroom, she became a prominent choreographer of musicals in local and regional theaters, and for 25 years was the dance critic of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“Frances Wessells is the grande dame of modern dance in Richmond,” said Chris Burnside, a retired dance instructor at VCU who now is a member of the adjunct faculty in the School of the Arts. “For Frances, dance is a metaphor for life. She has said that as she’s gotten older, she feels she is teaching less about dance and more about life.”

Wessells has frequently addressed medical students on the MCV Campus and elsewhere about living and dealing with old age, and sometimes her appearances include a dance performance.

She danced with the Latin Ballet in Richmond for seven years, and not long ago she offered her skills to a group of veteran theater performers — “We call ourselves the ‘Bifocals' because we’re all over 50” — and choreographed a dance routine using chairs that the troupe performed at area nursing homes.

One of Wessells’ loves is helping non-dance majors at VCU develop the confidence to express themselves in movement.

“For many, this has given them greater confidence in all aspects of life,” she said, citing the numerous letters of thanks she has received from former students.

In 1919, the year Frances Wessells was born, the movies were still silent and television had not yet been invented. But now, thanks to one of her former students, Jason Akira Somma, she is on YouTube.  

The video, a tribute to Wessells, shows her dancing, as well describing a harrowing incident that occurred when she was visiting friends who were renovating their house in Washington, D.C.

What she didn’t know was that, as part of the renovation, the stoop from the second-floor kitchen had been removed. Wessells stepped through a door, and dropped into space.

“I felt my body turning. I was in slow motion turning, turning. I thought this is wonderful. Oh, I can’t stop. I butted against something and I said, ‘I want to turn more — but no.’”

Wessells opened her eyes on the edge of a concrete stairway to the basement, feeling fortunate to be alive.

Someone on the other side of the world saw the video and was taken not only by Somma’s artistry, but by the fact that a woman of Wessells’ age – she was 88 then – was still dancing and enjoying life.

The video won her an invitation to perform in December in London.

For someone who started her dancing career as a chorus girl at clubs in Denver, it could be the performance of a lifetime.

Frances Wessells helped form the Department of Dance and Choreography at VCU and, at age 90, is still teaching — bending and stretching, swirling and dancing, defying gravity, and old age. Read a VCU news profile of Wessells.