In Praise of Betty Jones

June 19, 2011

The great modern dancer and teacher Betty Jones was just honored by the Limón Dance Company. The occasion jolted my memory of her as a teacher.

At Connecticut College (American Dance Festival) in 1967 and ’68, Betty was a beloved teacher: Intelligent, compassionate, dedicated. I trusted her completely. Her passion for the Humphrey/Limón technique came through every step and combination. But she added her own approach too. To work on our alignment, she gave the image of the body as three spools sitting on top of each other. You could really envision the architecture of your body, you could imagine it all lining up. And Betty herself was so centered that she was proof that this image worked.

Betty was always kind; she really wanted to help students improve. She had worked with Dr. Lulu Sweigard on early somatic practices. It had helped her so much that she decided, on her own free time, to give students help outside of technique class. She must have put up a notice for all those who had back trouble—and that was definitely me. About six of us met with her in a small room, and she taught us the constructive rest position. I still remember some of the images: Sand is pouring down from your knees; your torso is a wrinkled coat and you’re getting rid of the wrinkles. A star dancer like Betty didn’t have to be spending time helping us, but she did. The Moor’s Pavane, S. Enkleman, Courtesy Limón

Betty was not an overly flexible dancer, but you felt her total commitment onstage. She was praised for her “crystalline quality” by Doris Hering in Dance Magazine. With her delicacy of movement and her potential for ecstasy, she was the quintessential Desdemona. She had an unwavering, heartbreaking faith in her Moor—Limón.

And I remember Betty and Fritz Ludin together. They were a couple both on and offstage. After they left the Limón company, they formed a duo  company in Hawaii called Dances We Dance. One of their main choreographers was my teacher at Bennington College, Martha Wittman (now a full-time dance artist with Liz Lerman Dance Exchange). Soon Martha was going to Hawaii during summers and winter non-resident terms to make dances for them. They were wonderful, surreal duets, full of dreamlike imagery. They weren’t duets about a man and woman falling in love; they were more like two creatures that have an odd, oblique relation to each other.

Betty taught at ADF and Juilliard for about 40 years. ADF sent her to many countries in Asia and the Soviet Union to teach. I love the  “Teacher’s Wisdom” we did on Betty in April, 2005. Re-reading it, I see why I felt in such good hands in her class. In this interview she talked about Limón’s idea of isolations as being the different “voices of the body.” And she expressed so well the arc between gravity and lightness. I like what she says about her philosophy of teaching: “The students should retain their individuality but hold onto the “truth” of the movement.”

When I saw her at the Limón gala last week, after decades of not seeing her, she gave me a nice, relaxed smile. She looked so centered that I immediately remembered those spools.