She’s founded dance schools and companies that have taken part in prestigious performances. She’s created an institute dedicated to enhancing the skills of choreographers. During the last 80 years, she’s been called a prot�g�, a dancer and an artistic director. But the role she seems to like best is teacher, and her favorite title, a simple, “Miss Barbara.”
Barbara Weisberger of Kingston will turn 85 Sunday. She is the founder of Wilkes-Barre Ballet and the Pennsylvania Ballet. Here she looks over some of the photographs taken during her career in ballet.
Clark Van Orden/The Times Leader
If you go:
What: 85th birthday party for ‘Miss Barbara’
Where: Jewish Community Center, South River Street, Wilkes-Barre
When: Sunday at 10:30 a.m.
Former students are welcome to enjoy a free brunch and showing of the WVIA-TV documentary her.
Age: About to turn 85
Family: Husband, Ernest; children Wendy and Steven; grandchildren Emily, Jessie and Dane; great-granddaughter Brooke
Accomplishments: Prot�g� of famed ballet teacher George Balanchine; founder of Wilkes-Barre Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, the Carlisle Project and The Dance Lovers’ Society; artistic adviser to the Peabody Institute
Hobbies: Playing poker, mahjong, cards and other “mind-emptying” games to relax, cooking
Quotable: “I really should take notes when I’m being interviewed. Everybody is asking me to write a book. I am a book! There are so few of us left from that time that can pull together the story of the great revolution of dance here. It should be remembered.”
On Monday, Barbara Weisberger, better known as Miss Barbara to generations of ballet students both here and across the region, will celebrate her 85th birthday. The occasion will be marked at 10:30 Sunday morning with a party at the Jewish Community Center in Wilkes-Barre featuring a free brunch and a showing of a WVIA-TV documentary about Miss Barbara’s career.
It’s a career that began when she was just 3 and stepped into her very first pair of ballet shoes. A few years later, “a pushy little lady dance teacher” heard about a dance school that was holding auditions. Weisberger soon found herself dancing for the famed George Balanchine, co-founder and ballet master for the New York City Ballet. He accepted her as a student – his first-ever child student – when Weisberger was just 8 years old.
“My mother said I was born dancing,” Weisberger said. “I’ve been full of dance my whole life. I still am.”
Her natural ability combined with dedication born from love of the dance made Weisberger a prot�g�, and she continued her studies through her school years. Had the opportunities been there, she would have continued dancing as a professional. But it was 1942.
“There was a war going on and there were no professional dance companies,” Weisberger said, a hint of regret in her voice.
Instead of continuing with dance, Weisberger said her parents convinced her to try college and she registered at the University of Delaware, later transferring to Penn State. Majoring in dance or theater wasn’t an option, so she asked an adviser what people who were interested in performing arts were studying. The adviser told her they studied speech.
“I asked what you do when you major in speech and one of the things she told me was speech therapy,” Weisberger said. “But to do that, you also studied education. I ended up majoring in elementary education.”
Weisberger was 16 when she started college and she graduated just three years later, in 1945. A brief marriage followed and for those five years, she had little to do with dance. But soon, an opportunity arose that she just couldn’t refuse.
“A friend of my mother’s named Hilda Man Hertz had a school,” Weisberger said. There, students learned all manner of performing arts – except ballet.
“She didn’t have a ballet teacher. She begged me,” Weisberger continued. “I said OK and I ended up loving it.”
Those students were the first of generations of dancers to be taught and inspired by Miss Barbara. From those classes, she went on to found the Wilkes-Barre Ballet Theater in 1953 and one of the country’s leading ballet companies, the Pennsylvania Ballet, in 1963.
“It all started with less than $3,000 and a lot of encouragement from Balanchine,” said Weisberger of her teacher and mentor. “It was what could happen then. I don’t think it could happen now.”
Weisberger said those years were lean financially but bountiful in devotion to the arts.
“It wasn’t about the buck,” she said. “We had two 18- or 19-year-old girls working with us who barely had enough to eat. They got $20 a week when we had it, but they stayed with us. It was really the spirit that people had about it. It was transforming.
Weisberger continued, “We all underwrote what we did and there was never much money. It was all about dedication and focus and doing what’s important, just doing it and not giving up, and having the wonderful support of wonderful people. Their support wasn’t always money. Sometimes it was believing in you so much that you believed in yourself. For many artists and performers of the arts, that’s just not available now.”
Working to maintain that spirit and to support those who find the desire of their hearts in the performing arts has been a lifelong pursuit for Weisberger. Though she eventually parted ways with both the Wilkes-Barre school and the Pennsylvania Ballet, she was instrumental in establishing other means of encouraging and developing performing arts talents through the Carlisle Project, which was created to provide support and training for choreographers. These days, Weisberger said she finds great satisfaction serving as artistic adviser to the prestigious Peabody Institute dance department. She’s also founded The Dance Lovers’ Society, dedicated to bringing together those who love dance – whether they perform, teach or watch – to share activities they can all appreciate.
Along the way, Miss Barbara married Ernest Weisberger and the couple raised two children, Wendy and Steven. They have three grandchildren, Emily, Jessie and Dane, and one great-granddaughter, Brooke, with another little great-granddaughter on the way.
“One of the things I really got joy from was my kids,” Weisberger said. “I always had a bit of guilt because I was so involved with ballet, but my son said, ‘That’s just my mom pursuing her career,’ and they were fine. I think if you have happy parents, you are so much more likely to have happy kids, and if that’s the case, then I think my kids are happy.”
What’s more, Weisberger was a sort of surrogate mom to many of the young dancers who stepped to the barre, a role that has probably brought her the most satisfaction of her storied career.
“It wasn’t just about knowing what you are doing,” she said. “It’s about loving. Many teachers know the craft, but there is something deeper and it’s not something you think about when you’re doing it. I think you either are or you aren’t a teacher.”
She added, “When a student puts her or his hand on the barre and looks at me, you can tell right away that they are communicating with God. That’s what it’s about – communicating with God. For me, it was the most heartwarming thing about my life. ”
Weisberger recalled a recent incident when she was out with her family and a woman and her daughter approached them. The daughter had been her pupil years before and fondly recalled her time in class.
“They still remember the feeling of people in class and jumping through space,” Weisberger said. “What more could you want than to know that someone remembers what you’ve done and that you’ve built something that helped people.”
Weisberger hopes many of her former pupils will join her in celebrating her birthday, a day to share more than eight decades of memories of the joy of dance.
“I was fortunate because my mother promised herself if she had a daughter, that daughter would take dance,” Weisberger said. “I was fortunate that I was talented, and that I was able to dedicate myself to it. I’m just one of the fortunate people who got to do what she loves to do for her whole life.”