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A Tenacious Trailblazer’s Legacy

By August 21, 2023August 31st, 2023No Comments

A Tenacious Trailblazer’s Legacy

By Charlotte Settle
Photos by Olaf Growald

Margo Dean has shaped the arts in Fort Worth for nearly 80 years — and counting

Every inch of the Margo Dean School of Ballet is painted in various shades of purple. Margo Dean herself is dressed in the royal hue from head to toe. When asked if it’s her favorite color, she replies with a smile, “It’s my only color.”

Though she might not get around as easily as she used to, Dean is as spunky as ever. “I used to lie about my age, but last birthday, it came out,” she says with a laugh. “95 and still alive!”

This year, Dean celebrated the 73rd anniversary of her ballet school, making it the longest established in Fort Worth. In June, she wrapped up her 41st annual Summer Dance Concert — a free outdoor performance series courtesy of her nonprofit, Ballet Concerto. As we sit and chat in her home away from home, she reflects on her contributions to the arts in Fort Worth and the remarkable legacy she has created.

Dean fell head over heels in love with ballet at 8, when she first watched a ballerina perform on pointe. “I never wanted to do anything but dance,” she says. Dean went on to study ballet in cities around the world, including New York, Paris and Rio de Janeiro. Her performance career spanned from Dallas Summer Musicals all the way to stages in Cuba.

When she founded Margo Dean School of Ballet in 1950, she had only 10 students. She held classes out of her living room on Thomas Place, across from Stripling Middle School on Fort Worth’s Westside. A few years and many more students later, she opened her first official studio space on Westview Avenue. In 1983, she moved her school to its current location on Camp Bowie Boulevard.

Through it all, Dean has stayed true to her mission: to make quality ballet training available to everyone, regardless of their career aspirations. Above all, she cultivates an atmosphere in which the love of dance overrides the pressure to pursue it professionally. Still, her students past and present have taken the dance world by storm — from Broadway to the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Determined to bring ballet into Fort Worth public schools, Dean approached the director of the school district in 1969 with a proposal. He asked for a list of her board of directors. She put one together as quickly as possible, drove to Austin to register as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and established Ballet Concerto.

It became the first cultural organization to present arts demonstrations in Fort Worth public schools. “The Fort Worth Opera and the symphony came after me,” Dean says with pride. “It just gives me great pleasure to expose children to ballet.”

This year, Dean appointed her son, Webster Dean, as Ballet Concerto’s new artistic director — a role she had held since she founded the company. Still, she has no intentions of stepping aside anytime soon. “I’d really get upset if somebody did something without telling me,” she says in jest. So she gave herself a new title — founding artistic director. “It just means that I do all the work and she comes up with ideas,” her son jokes.

What hasn’t changed is the free lecture demonstrations that Ballet Concerto has conducted in Fort Worth public elementary schools for the last 54 years. “Many kids, especially in underprivileged schools, have never seen ballet before,” Webster Dean says. “That’s what lecture demos are aimed at.”

During the 50-minute presentations, students from Dean’s school perform an abbreviated ballet class and excerpts from a classical work. At the end of the demonstration, the dancers invite students on stage to learn a one minute ballet.

The lecture demonstrations eventually evolved into Ballet Concerto’s second educational initiative, FIND (Find and Inspire New Dancers). Through FIND, Dean sends a teacher from her school to host free weekly ballet classes at select Fort Worth ISD elementary schools. She even provides the students with ballet shoes. Throughout the years, Dean has mentored dozens of students who discovered ballet through FIND, several of whom have gone on to dance professionally.

In 1982, Ballet Concerto expanded its reach to the public with its first Summer Dance Concert. Since then, the production has become a staple for dance lovers in Fort Worth. Year after year, audiences have packed up lawn chairs, blankets and picnics and flocked to an outdoor venue to enjoy an evening of complimentary entertainment.

What started out as a group of Dean’s students dancing on concrete at Trinity Park has evolved into a full-fledged production. Today, the Summer Dance Concert features professional dancers from around the country, a complete stage setup with wings and a production team of lighting and sound designers. Roughly eight years ago, the company leveled up its venue to the lawn at The Shops at Clearfork. “We had very large audiences this year,” Webster Dean says. “There’s been a gradual increase in artistry, in funding, in everything.”

Ballet Concerto raises funds for the Summer Dance Concert entirely from private donors and corporations. In exchange for a donation to the company, Ballet Concerto also offers reserved table seating at the performances. “Since we’ve been at Clearfork, we’ve gotten a lot more interest from donors,” he says. Among this year’s long list of contributors were Arts Fort Worth and the Amon G. Carter Foundation.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that without Margo Dean, many of Fort Worth’s foremost ballet institutions would not exist today. At her suggestion, Texas Christian University became the first college in the nation to offer a Bachelor of Fine Arts in ballet.

“I knew the director of fine arts,” she says. “And I told him, ‘I think you need a ballet department.’” She recommended her friend David Preston to teach a class at the school, and he served as the department’s first chair for the next 14 years.

In the late 1950s, while Dean was dancing with the Dallas Civic Ballet, she wondered why Fort Worth didn’t have a ballet company of its own. With her trademark determination and entrepreneurial spirit, she decided to start one herself. In 1961, she founded the Fort Worth Ballet Association — internationally recognized today as Texas Ballet Theater.

Dean served as the company’s executive director for a year before inviting the late Fernando Schaffenburg, former dancer with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, to take her place. Schaffenburg later became the second chair of TCU’s ballet department and was an integral part of shaping it until his retirement.

Adding to the list of her pioneering contributions to the arts, Dean was the first resident choreographer for the Fort Worth Opera — a position she held from 1955 to 1962. She continued to choreograph operas as a guest over the years, several of which her son performed in during the ’90s.

Dean served on the board of directors for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and the Hip Pocket Theatre — an experimental playhouse known for its interdisciplinary approach to storytelling. She also served as president of the Southwestern Regional Ballet Association. In 2019, the Arts Council of Fort Worth awarded Dean the Lifetime Achievement in the Arts award — one of many accolades she’s received for her immeasurable contributions over the years.

Throughout our conversation, Dean gets heartwarmingly sidetracked by memories of her late husband, Beale Dean. “He probably thought he would have a housewife,” Dean says with a laugh. “I surprised him, but it worked out for 65 years.”

Dean’s husband was a lawyer — and could not have cared less about ballet. “He tolerated it,” but he was nonetheless a steadfast supporter of his wife’s and their son’s careers, Webster Dean says. Beale even agreed to name his and Margo’s daughter after his wife’s favorite ballet, “Giselle.” When asked his thoughts on the name, her husband notably replied, “I’m just glad her favorite ballet wasn’t Swan Lake.”

Webster Dean jokes that his mother always harassed his sister into taking ballet class, but she never cared whether he studied dance.

“She had my sister in the crib pointing her feet,” he says with a laugh. “And nobody did anything for me, but I’m the one who had the career.” He danced with Ballet West in Salt Lake City for 12 years and with various companies internationally before returning home to Fort Worth to work for his mother. “I might never have known what ballet was with any other parents,” he says. “When I decided to pursue it, I had a lot of knowledge, because I’d been around it forever.”

The plan for the Margo Dean School of Ballet and Ballet Concerto is clear: stay the course on the path Dean has paved. “She’s still the guiding force,” her son says. And she will undoubtedly remain so for as long as she lives.

“It’s exciting to think I came from teaching 10 students in my living room to what all we’ve done,” says Margo Dean. “It’s amazing,” says her son. “I don’t know what we would have in Fort Worth if she hadn’t gotten it all going.”

About a week after this interview, the indomitable Dean and her family jetted off to Paris. As we wrapped up our conversation, she grabbed my hand and said, “This will be my first trip to Paris without taking a ballet class. But who knows,” she remarked with a cheeky grin. “Maybe I still will.”