Frances Wessells

Frances Wessells (born August 18, 1919) is an American dancer, choreographer, and Associate Professor Emerita and founder of the dance department at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).[1] She helped form the department of dance at VCU and is still teaching and dancing professionally in her late nineties.[2]

Art criticismEdit

In her writing as a dance critic for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, she reviewed many dance troupes and star performers, such as Lorry May of the Sokolow Dance Foundation.[3] For 25 years she was the dance critic for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.[citation needed]

Education and teaching careerEdit

Frances Wessells received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Denver and a Master of Arts from New York University. She taught at Sweet Briar College for three years. She was on the dance faculty at the University of Richmond for 25 years and at VCU for 30 years.[4]

In 2003 Wessells and Robbie Kinter performed for students of geriatric medicine in the medical school of St. Louis University.[5] Dancer Chris Burnside, who taught at University of California, Los Angeles and served as Chair of the Department of Dance and Choreography and Assistant Dean of Student Affairs in the VCU School of the Arts, began his career studying and dancing with Wessells at VCU.[6]

In 2016, at its annual Artsie Awards gala at Virginia Repertory Theatre's November Theatre, with local acting/singing star Desirée Roots hosting, the Richmond Theater Critics Circle awarded Wessells the Liz Marks Memorial Award for Ongoing Contribution to Richmond Area Theater for her significant long-term contributions to the Richmond Art Community as a VCU professor of dance performance, choreography, and history. Wessells received the award along with Marie Goodman Hunter, an "African-American actor, singer and educator who helped break down racial barriers in teaching and performance in central Virginia."[7][8][9]

Dance performerEdit

One of her earliest teachers was Hanya Holm.[1] Wessells performed in the Latin Ballet of Virginia's[10] 2016 production of The Legend of the Poinsettia.[11] Her nomination for an Artsie award was announced in 2016 by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.[12] Many of her performances have been demonstrations of the healthful importance of agility and strength gained from dancing at any age.[13] She has frequently performed with Robbie Kinter.[14][15] Wessells and Kinter performed Marda in 2008 at the Carpenter Center in Richmond,[16] and, in 2012, they participated together in the 10th Annual Richmond Choreographers Showcase produced by Starr Foster Dance Project at the Grace Street Theatre in Richmond.[17] Kinter choreographed Them, which was performed with Wessells at the Choreographers Showcase at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland.[18]

Wessells performed in March 2011 at Paris' Théâtre National de Chaillot. Jason Akira Somma, her 31-year-old dance partner, confirmed that the last of her three performances in Paris brought the audience to tears.[19]


Wessells was a member of Artspace in Richmond, Virginia and an exhibitor at art6. She showed glass works in ThinkSmall3 sponsored by Artspace and art6.[20] In 2001, she exhibited stone and clay sculpture at Artspace.[21] In 2005, she participated in Fluxus/Redux at art6.[22] She was a model for a Susan Singer show of female nudes Not Barbie: A Celebration of Real Women, which represented stories of "birth, aging, pregnancy, middle age, scars, body modifications, and many other topics."[23]

Family historyEdit

Frances Wessells was born into a family of professional musicians whose careers derailed with the demise of vaudeville and the coming of talkies.

Wessells was married for 44 years to John Wessells, a speechwriter and friend to a succession of Virginia governors. The couple met in Colorado, when both were singing in a church choir. They had three sons before John Wessells' death in 1988.[24] She remarried, to John Bailey, a dancer, painter, and choreographer, who had been one of her students; they moved to Crozier, Virginia.[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b "Francis Wessells - VCUarts Department of Dance & Choreography". VCUarts Department of Dance & Choreography. Retrieved October 19, 2016.
  2. ^ "Ninety-year-old dance instructor transported to a place where motion is poetry". VCU News. Retrieved October 19, 2016.
  3. ^ "About Lorry May". Sokolow Dance Foundation. Retrieved November 21, 2016.
  4. ^ "Francis Wessells - VCUarts Department of Dance & Choreography". VCUarts Department of Dance & Choreography. Retrieved 22 November 2016.
  5. ^ [1]
  6. ^ Ballet, Richmond (September 10, 2013). "Minds In Motion Team XXL works with guest instructor Chris Burnside - Richmond Ballet News". Richmond Ballet. Retrieved November 21, 2016.
  7. ^ "'Dreamgirls' wins Best Musical, six more Artsies at awards gala Monday". Richmond Times-Dispatch. Retrieved November 19, 2016.
  8. ^ ""Dreamgirls" Bursts Through 2016 Artsies Awards". Style Weekly. Retrieved November 21, 2016.
  9. ^ "Celebrating Excellence in Richmond-area Theatre". Retrieved November 21, 2016.
  10. ^ "Latin Ballet of Virginia". issuu. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
  11. ^ "Dance review: 'The Legend of the Poinsettia'". Richmond Times-Dispatch. Retrieved 19 October 2016.
  12. ^ "Richmond Theatre Critics Circle announces 'Artsie' nominees". Richmond Times-Dispatch. Retrieved October 19, 2016.
  13. ^ "Frances Wessels A Portrait of 89 Years on Vimeo". 2010-11-30. Retrieved 2017-11-01.
  14. ^ "robbie kintner frances wessells - Bing". Retrieved November 8, 2016.
  15. ^ "Robbie Kinter - VCUarts Department of Dance & Choreography". VCUarts Department of Dance & Choreography. Retrieved November 8, 2016.
  16. ^ "Madar". You Tube. August 10, 2008. Retrieved November 8, 2016.
  17. ^ "10th Annual Choreographers Showcase". ShowClix. Retrieved November 21, 2016.
  18. ^ "Robbie Kinter - VCUarts Department of Dance & Choreography". VCUarts Department of Dance & Choreography. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
  19. ^ "Frances Wessells has been in motion for 91 years". Richmond Times-Dispatch. Retrieved November 20, 2016.
  20. ^ Frostick, Dana. "". Retrieved November 21, 2016.
  21. ^ Frostick, Dana. "". Retrieved November 19, 2016.
  22. ^ "Goings On July 12, 2005". Retrieved March 23, 2019.
  23. ^ "Exhibit Reveals More Than Just Skin". Richmond Times-Dispatch. Retrieved 19 October 2016.
  24. ^ Robertson, Gary. "Francis Wessells has been in motion for 91 years". Richmond Times-Dispatch. Retrieved November 23, 2016.