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At age 81, Richmond's modern-dance icon continues to search for the rhythm of her life.

The Laws of Motion

When Frances Wessells wants to sit on the floor, she takes her time. Two knee replacement surgeries a decade ago force her through a delicate dance: She bends forward at the waist, places both hands on the floor in front of her and forms an upside-down V with her 5-foot-4-inch body. Then, smoothly, she twists and lowers her hips, sits and leaves her knees slightly bent, and crosses her legs at the ankles. On a Tuesday afternoon in November, in the basement of a three-story building in the Fan, she completes this maneuver, sits on the floor and talks with her hands. Her feet are bare; her sturdy, graceful, 81-year-old body is clad in black sweat pants and a light gray T-shirt. Wessells is cheerfully eccentric about many things — she is obsessed with acrostics and other word puzzles, for example, and she seems to have kept every piece of clothing she's ever worn and delights in combining them in different ways — but she's serious about this. Around her, sprawled in a circle, 18 university students listen to her speak. It's taken her seven decades to learn what she's about to try to communicate today. It was 1943. The Rocky Mountains loomed over Colorado College in Colorado Springs, 70 miles south of Denver. Wessells despised conceit, but all her life she'd wanted to be a dancer; all her life she'd worked for this. She danced well and she knew it. She was turning 24 this summer, and here she was in her second year at Hanya Holm's eight-week summer dance program. Holm was a star. At 45 years old, the strict, German-born dancer had not yet been to Broadway, where she would eventually choreograph such shows as "Camelot," "My Fair Lady" and "Kiss Me, Kate." But she was one of the greats, one of the second-generation founders of modern dance. Along with Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Wiedman, Holm was among the "Big Four" pioneers of modern dance. The eruption of modern dance in the 1920s had been a resounding revolution against ballet. It blended the roles of choreographer and dancer. It focused on movement for a reason, rather than for show. It explored space and refused to be a slave to music. Growing up, Wessells had never seen such dancing. At 10, she took tap lessons from a family friend who had been in vaudeville. She danced at his house, trying out steps on the leaves of a table placed on the floor. A year later, she started summer classes, held in the big ballroom at a local amusement park. By 15, she was teaching tap to children. She joined the summer dance school's chorus line as a professional chorus girl. The troupe traveled. It put extra money in her pocket. She continued the gig through college. "But I knew I didn't want to do that all my life," Wessells says. "When you are a chorus girl, you just smile and do your steps." Fortunately, one of her college dance instructors showed her something amazing. She performed for Wessells. With arms moving and feet flying, the instructor took off across the length of the college dance studio. It was modern dance. "When I saw her run across the floor," Wessells recalls, "I thought, That was for me." To learn this new art form, college classes wouldn't be enough for Wessells. While she attended the university, she took lessons in a local studio. By the time she graduated in 1941, she had honed her talent. An adjunct instructor urged her to see Hanya Holm. She did, attending Holm's eight-week dance workshop that summer in Colorado Springs. That fall, Wessells left for New York University, one of three schools in the country that offered a master's degree in dance education. As it happened, Holm ran a professional studio in New York. Wessells couldn't resist attending — "I wanted to move!" she says — and she hopped between NYU and Holm's studio, at times taking two-hour classes back-to-back. [image-1](Scott Elmquist / Style Weekly)Every Wednesday, Wessells meets with former student Robbie Ginter to rehearse modern dance and choreograph potential performance pieces. The experience — following dance as a viable profession — turned out to be one of the best decisions Wessells ever made, she says: "If I hadn't made that choice I'd probably still be in Denver, and married to somebody, doing nothing." This summer in 1943, though, she was far from doing nothing. With New York University under her belt, she danced all day and into the night with Holm as inspiration. Then, somehow, she found inspiration from within. In her technique class, she was busy with 20 other students, working on a specific movement. Suddenly, she says, she vividly recalls finding her "personal center" — what it was that made her unique, and how she could express it. She danced from the inside out. All that dancing, all those years, she thought, yet she had never truly danced. It was a quiet discovery. "Nobody said anything," Wessells says. "I just let go of something that I had kept holding back. I suddenly gave my permission to fully dance." She struggles to find the words to explain it. Before that moment, Wessells says, her dancing was all surface. "I looked good," she says. "I could move real well. But my total soul was not in it. It was all body. This is what I'm getting from these kids." Today, Wessells is teaching a class in beginning improvisation, a required course in the dance and choreography department at Virginia Commonwealth University. In a fluorescent-lighted room built of brick and cinder blocks, the muted sound of tap dancers one floor above seeps through the ceiling. Overhead, precisely timed feet click through precise combinations. Well-rehearsed dance steps pound out rhythms. But in this class, Wessells will have none of that. The goal of this class is the exact opposite of the one upstairs: No steps. No strict rhythms. No pre-learned combinations. Instead, Wessells requires her students to offer originality, inventive moves and expression from deep within. Spontaneously. "Try, as you explore, to acquaint yourself with every part of your body," Wessells tells them. "Wake up each part." Testing new movements is like eating at a banquet, she says: "I usually take a spoonful of everything." But these students have yet to taste it all, even though the fall semester is nearly finished. Finals are two weeks away, and Wessells demands more. She urges the students to break from long habit and training. She wants them to move in ways they never have. In a few minutes, Wessells will ask them to improvise during a 30-minute warm-up. Getting to this point has been — as usual — a semester-long challenge. Some of the students, typically half, come to the class from majors outside the dance department. They spend much of the semester learning to overcome self-consciousness and a lack of experience. The other half, dance and choreography majors, bring their training. But they must leave behind the comfortable, trained moves in their repertoire. Teaching them, Wessells says, can be more difficult than teaching the novice dancers. "My hardest students are the ones who have had improvisation and think they already know," she says, "and they do the same thing over and over. In other words, they're not really going inside and thinking and developing and growing." She wants them to dance from the inside out. "I try to help them to think for themselves," explains Wessells, an earnest expression on her wrinkled face. "My aim is to get each person to move from their personal center, meaning the part of them which is unique." That act — what she calls dancing from within — is one of the most significant turning points for any dancer, she says. It is also one of the most frightening. "It is very scary to put your most vulnerable essence out there," she says, "because this is the you that can be stepped on, can be laughed at. It's something that we all protect. And I would say most people never let it out at all." Jump to Part 1, 2,Part 2

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