I n 1943, Frances strolled the green campus of Sweet Briar College, a woman's liberal-arts college at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Lynchburg, and thought about her fiancée, John Wessells. He was far away, and she was alone. Frances had just moved to Virginia to start a job teaching dance. It was her first time in the state. She had met John Wessells a few years before, when they both sang in the same church choir. Now he was fighting in World War II, serving as a communications officer on a destroyer in the South Pacific. She thought about him there as she walked to her next dance class, absent-mindedly knitting a scarf she had thrown over her shoulder. All the campus women knitted them for soldiers to show support for the war. In September 1944, the war still raging, John came to the United States so they could be married, then returned to sea. Finally, in 1945, he came home. The two settled in Lynchburg until a friend at the daily newspaper in Richmond helped John land a writing job there. The couple moved to the capital in 1947. Wessells wasn't immediately impressed by the city. She wondered whether she could ever survive such a conservative place. "You couldn't find any contemporary anything," she says. But she soon found the city's emerging dance culture. While her family grew three sons by 1951 Wessells embarked on an exhaustive dance career. She taught private classes. She taught part-time at the University of Richmond. In 1959, at the age of 40, she was asked to choreograph her first stage show, "Kiss Me, Kate," at what is now TheatreVirginia. She called her former mentor, Hanya Holm, for advice. "Just remember, every dance in this show is a different style," Holm told her. The show went well and sparked a 12-year stint at the theater, as well as a job offer from a Times-Dispatch editor to write critiques. She wrote for the paper for the next 25 years. In 1975, Wessells took a full-time teaching job at VCU and ended her 25-year, part-time teaching career at UR. After arriving at VCU, she decided she could turn the dance classes which were managed, as was traditional, in the physical education department into a major. By 1980, VCU announced that dance and choreography would become its own major. Wessells' life was a frenzy. "When you're in my profession," she says, "you're on top for a very short time. I was on top then, and everybody asked me to work. And if I turned them down, they'd find somebody else, and I'd be forgotten. So I thought I wanted to ride the wave while it went up, because I knew it would come down." The downside, she says, is that she missed important time with her children while they were in high school. But she would probably do it again, she adds. "I am so fortunate that I was able to experience dance as a performer, as a teacher, as a writer and as a choreographer in musicals as well as concerts," Wessells says. "So I feel that I was able to experience my love, which is dance, in almost every way." Soon she would have to do it without John Wessells. John Wessells had developed a prestigious writing career since his days at the Times-Dispatch. In 1962, he took a job writing speeches for then-Gov. Albertis S. Harrison Jr., and continued as a speechwriter for four more Virginia governors: Mills E. Godwin Jr., A. Linwood Holton, John N. Dalton and Charles S. Robb. When Robb left office in the 1980s, John Wessells retired, and he and Frances finally built the house in the country they always wanted. But John soon developed Alzheimer's. He spent his last days with Frances at their new, peaceful house. It was awash in sunlight from huge windows and full of fine art. And it offered 10 acres of land for walking. John died in 1988. Wessells stands in the basement
studio of the VCU dance building. She is preparing her 18 students for their improvisation exercise without music. It will take focus and concentration. The students lie flat on their backs with their eyes closed. Wessells steps between the spaces of their angled bodies, more than 60 years younger than her own. Wessells knows she cannot force a personal breakthrough on the students in her class today or ever. "It's something that just has to happen," she says. "It's not something that somebody can say, 'Do this,' and you do it, and that's it." But she can make it easier. Slowly, calmly, softly, she tells them to let their arms melt into the floor. Breathe out worries and breathe in beauty, she says. "Sense the relaxation pouring down your scalp, behind your ears," she says: Relax your hips, inside your nose, behind your knees. "I want you to forget everything in your life except what's happening in this time and space," she says. Only recently has Wessells truly learned to do the same. She met John Bailey, who would become her second husband, in 1970 when he took dance lessons from her. He moved back to New Mexico in 1971, but kept in touch with John and Frances Wessells until he returned to Richmond in 1989. In the summer of 1991, he asked Frances to marry him. Bailey recalls his wife's once caffeine-filled, frenzied schedule. It started first thing in the morning, he says: "I remember her jumping up to a cup of coffee and running off to a conference, a rehearsal, a dance class and guzzling coffee all day and keeping that pace until 12 at night. And getting up the next day and going the same way." Now, Bailey says, she enjoys moments of stillness. "She has a wonderful morning ritual that begins with a period of calm and quiet, sitting on the back sunroom, looking out over the meadow, just being quiet," he says. "I don't even think she thinks." [image-1](Scott Elmquist / Style Weekly)Wessells enjoys the light and peacefulness of her octagonal-shaped home in Crozier, which she shares with her second husband, John Bailey. After that half-hour of quiet, which usually ends around 8 or 8:30, Wessells sits in bed, eats some fruit, drinks a cup of coffee, works the daily acrostic in the newspaper and looks through her mail. She goes downstairs and has some cereal. She spends the rest of the day working on sculpture, running an errand, meeting a friend for lunch or teaching a class. There's an afternoon nap. And by 9 or 9:30 at night, it's bedtime. But the simplicity that Wessells has adopted in her life should not be mistaken for slowing down, Bailey says. "The drive to be creative is still there," he says. "What has changed is just this deepening appreciation for the real beauty of the life we live." Wessells, whose life's mission has been to dance from the inside out, has discovered the value of pulling the outside in. Now, she must find a way to balance both directions. But it's in her role as a teacher that Wessells may have offered the greatest legacy. "I didn't know it at the time," she says, "but I think now that my choice to go into teaching was one of the best choices.
I have met life-long friends through my teaching and I've found that I can express my dance through teaching, I feel, more potently than [through] my performing." And now teaching is giving her something in return. "Her contact with the students, I think, is the core value for her in her teaching," says her husband, John Bailey. "It isn't about the creativity of dance anymore. It's the contact with the students. That's the payoff." One of her former students, Chris Burnside, has seen her evolve. Burnside, now a professor in the VCU dance and choreography department, has been friends with Wessells since 1968, when he was a commercial art student at VCU. After seeing "Hello, Dolly!" at the Richmond Mosque, Burnside decided he wanted to be in a show, too. Wessells was choreographing "Camelot" at TheatreVirginia, so he asked her if he could be in it. She suggested dance lessons, which he took. But she let him in the show, too. He started studying under her; after he left VCU he embarked on a 14-year professional dance career. Now he's back, teaching. Burnside learned important lessons from Wessells, he says: "The day-to-day practice, and the discipline of dance, is reward in itself. There's something about that that can change your daily point of view and change your daily emotional state. And that's worth it." That may be a lesson Wessells is expanding on in her own life, Burnside says. "I think she has become wiser and wiser," he says. "I think she enjoys the day-to-day process of living. I don't think she has huge career aspirations like she did before." About 10 years ago, Wessells started sculpting in glass, stone and ceramics. "I went into sculpture because I felt I was getting older, and I figured my dance career would have to lessen," she says. "I have to have something creative I'm not happy if I'm not creative. So I thought the nearest thing to dance is sculpture.
They're both concerned with space, positive and negative space. They're both concerned with dynamics; they each have their own kind of rhythm; they're concerned with movement. The difference is, dance continually moves. Sculpture is like a photograph that captures one nanosecond." As she has aged and slowed down her life, Wessells' priorities and attention have shifted, say people who know her. She's become more focused, more honed. Perhaps that was most evident a year ago. It was Sept. 28, 1999, and outside her octagonal home in Crozier, about 40 minutes west of Richmond, Wessells was carrying a sculpture from her car into the studio. She stepped on a pile of pine needles that had fallen on a slate walk, fell and shattered her right leg. The 80-year-old was taken to VCU's Medical College of Virginia Hospitals. "She was plastered from toe to hip," Burnside says. At home, she was bedridden for two weeks. Nonetheless, Bailey adds, she was a joy to be around. "She doesn't go through these things like they're battles," he says. "She goes through them like they're blessings." He turned her bed toward the windows, and she "soaked up the moment, watched leaves change colors." But her chief concern, Burnside recalls, was getting back into the classroom. Two weeks after the fall, a group of students and professors carried her, in her wheelchair, up the steps of the dance building. She taught in the chair, then on her crutches, then with a cane. And today, in the same VCU dance building, the relaxation exercise that Wessells has led is coming to an end. It's time for the students to rise and dance. When Wessells says begin, the students try to follow her instructions - to express themselves in ways they never have. They leap and crouch. They bend and reach. The balls of a bare foot twist against the gray rubber dance floor, causing a squeak. It's like a giant elastic spider web around their professor in the middle of the room. She, too, dances. Wessells turns left, then right. She swings her arms; fast and precise, then slow and silky. She moves her shoulders, she stretches her neck, she stands on her toes. It looks effortless. It isn't. The dancing, which she still does every Wednesday with a former student, is more difficult than it used to be, Wessells says. "At my age, it takes you all these years to have the experience of living to have the spiritual development and then your body's gone!" she exclaims, bursting out laughing. "And you don't have the body to express it." But in the end, that won't matter, her husband thinks. Eventually, Wessells will embrace the idea of dancing inside and through her sculpture. Physically, she will be able to lay dance to rest, he says. "She never has reached that place where she is ready to put that aside," Bailey says. "She is getting close. And I'll expect one day she'll say, 'You know, I've had enough of it. I just want to stay at home and read.'" Jump to Part 1, 2