Still fit enough to do a cartwheel, longtime South Portland dance teacher Betsy Dunphy, 61, has decided to quit while she’s ahead.
Although many people are calling the closing of her popular dance school, Studio 408, a retirement, Dunphy doesn’t look at it that way. Instead, she sees it as an opportunity to continue doing what she loves, but on her own terms.
A celebration of Dunphy’s contribution to the local arts scene will be held in late June at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth. Meantime, her studio’s final recital will be held on Sunday, June 5, at Scarborough High School.
In addition to dance, Dunphy is also active in local theater, often appearing in shows at the Good Theater in Portland. She also teaches theater to kids and her summer theater camp is always popular.
According to Patty Werner, one of those organizing the celebration for Dunphy, children who work with Dunphy “have found a place where they can shine and feel at home. ”
She recalled that when her daughter was 3 and the family was thinking about getting her into dance, “at least 15 people gave us (Betsy’s) name. I was told by everyone, ‘Sign up quick or you won’t get in.’”
Werner said her daughter did not get into Studio 408 that first year, but she’s now been dancing with Dunphy for the past eight years “and Betsy has given her a safe and wonderful place to learn and love music, dance and theater. Betsy’s is not your typical dance studio and that is why (she’s) been so successful and so beloved.”
What former student Erica Green most admires about Dunphy is that “she lets her students shine.”
Now a student at Wentworth Institute of Technology, Green began taking dance classes from Dunphy when she was 3. She began assistant teaching in sixth grade and began teaching on her own as a 10th-grader.
“Over the years I’ve taken tap, modern, theater and ballet, and her teaching style is very much based in the idea of lifelong dance – being able to dance and express yourself at any age,” Green said. “While we did work on technique and how to make our movements precise, as we got older (the focus was on) just enjoying moving.”
Another aspect to Dunphy, Green said, was that “Betsy told us frequently if we ever needed anything, for any reason, whether we were in trouble or just needed to talk, she wanted us to call her. Her classes were more than just classes. They were a safe place.”
Green added, “Betsy is like a second mother to me. Without her in my life I would be a very different person. I’ve always felt she is there for me and has my best interests at heart.”
She also described Dunphy as being “kind and loving, (while) she can also be stern and doesn’t like to sugarcoat things.”
For example, Green credits Dunphy with knowing a career in ballet would not be a good fit for her.
“She knew that I wouldn’t have thrived in that environment,” Green said. “Instead she encouraged me to find outlets where my creativity could shine, hiring me as an art teacher a few summers at camp, as well as to teach dance.”
Green is studying product design.
“I largely attribute my success in design to Betsy because of how much she pushed and encouraged me to pursue whichever creative endeavors (interested) me,” she said.
Although she likely will not have a career in dance and acting, Green said, “I will always have to dance and teach and act, I wouldn’t be me without it. And I hope to always share Betsy’s ideals – that everyone should have the opportunity to explore what they can do (creatively).”
Dunphy called giving up her dance studio “a big step.” She said that what she will miss the most are her interactions with her students and their families.
Dunphy lives in South Portland now, but grew up in western New York and attended Western Connecticut University, where she majored in English. That’s where she also first developed her love for the theater.
Dunphy has been dancing since she was a child, even teaching dance while in high school. She came to Maine in 1980 when she joined the now defunct Ram Island Dance Company and her focus has mostly been on teaching modern dance, which is not often taught.
She remembers taking dance class at a studio that was on the top floor of a firehouse when she was younger.
“We often had to stop and plug our ears when the alarms went off,” Dunphy recalled.
After coming to Maine, Dunphy said she helped grow the children’s programs offered by Ram Island Dance, and “those kids and their families just followed me when the company folded.”
Overall, she said, “I feel so grateful for my career. I love it and hope I can do it forever in some form or other. It’s really been a terrific, terrific ride. It’s astounding to think how many kids I’ve taught over the years. People have been really, really good to me and I am so grateful for all the kindness and good fortune I’ve had.”
Dunphy, married to local jazz musician Peter Dunphy, said her husband has been a “big part of my successful run.” In addition to providing music for various dance pieces, Dunphy said her husband is also her “prop guy, building terrific set pieces for me.”
Some of the things she’s most proud of is having “done some really exciting, site-specific shows,” creating an inter-generational dance company called Perennial Effects, and bringing in a variety of choreographers to offer specialty workshops.
While Perennial Effects is no longer operating, Dunphy plans to continue teaching her popular senior tap classes and also hopes to be a guest teacher at other local dance studios. She wants to continue to teach children’s theater, too.
Her goal all along, Dunphy said, “has been to get people thinking, in a broader way, about what dance can be. I’ve really crossed a lot of boundaries.”
As for the party being thrown in her honor, Dunphy said, she’s both “flattered and surprised. I thought I might just slip away quietly and avoid a tearful farewell.”
But, she said, many parents and former students simply wouldn’t let that happen. What Dunphy hopes for the upcoming party at Fort Williams is that it will be “just a nice afternoon for all of us to play by the ocean.”
Jean Ricciardelli, another parent whose children have been taking dance from Dunphy for many years, said that through Dunphy’s classes, “a lifelong community of friends has been created.”
She noted that by taking part in dance class, “my children have made friends outside of their Portland neighborhood. And, all three of them found their niche dancing in Betsy’s classes (where) there was a place for everyone, the dancer as well as the non-dancer.”
Ricciardelli said her two daughters and one son all took dance from Dunphy, as well as theater.
“My last child is graduating this year and I am so glad Betsy did not retire any sooner,” she said.
Like Green, Ricciardelli also praised Dunphy for her encouragement and support of her students.
“As she got older, my youngest child was one of Betsy’s assistants and helped teach the younger dancers. This has been a wonderful learning experience for her. She has experienced the joy of being a leader and has had the unique chance to learn from one of the best teachers (around),” Ricciardelli said.
She added. “My children have gained self confidence and a belief in themselves and their ability to perform. As my two older children graduated they returned to work backstage for the recital. As we approach the last recital, there will be many tears of sadness that we have reached the end of an era and also a huge debt of gratitude for all the life lessons that Betsy has taught my children.”
Brian Allen, co-founder of Good Theater, called Dunphy “a great person – talented, funny, kind and a bright light. We’ve worked together numerous times.”
Allen said that in all Dunphy “has been a very positive force in and on the Portland arts scene. She’s inspired many, many students through her years of teaching. She’s given joy to the seniors she’s taught (and) she’s created innovate choreography for her own company, other companies, directors (and more) throughout southern Maine. She’s been a brilliant dancer and performer for many companies for several decades.”
He said, “I love working with Betsy as a choreographer. For roles she’s performed, I loved her Mrs. Curtin in ‘A Man of No Importance.’ Betsy nailed that role. I also have a fondness for her Mrs. Eggleston in ‘Little Me’ (where) she had to wield a gun.”
In addition, Allen said, “Betsy is one of best people I know. We hit it off immediately when we first met and we’ve been having a blast for 20 years.”
Dunphy knows she will be sad to say goodbye to her dance studio.
“This is just the ending of one chapter,” she said, “not the whole book.”
Longtime South Portland dance teacher Betsy Dunphy is closing her dance school. Here she’s pictured with some of her current creative-movement students, ages 5 and 6. In the front, from left, are Clara Madore, Isabel Anderson, Rudy Nichols, Mary Mahoney and Myloh Ames. In the back, from left, are Edie Wood, Melanie Mauldin, Zineb Robbins – Sibouih, Dunphy, Talia Melnick and Etta Simon.
Longtime South Portland dance teacher Betsy Dunphy, left, with former student Erica Green. “Betsy is like a second mother to me. Without her in my life I would be a very different person,” Green says.