Natalie Skelton fell in love with dance at 8 – and she has been enchanted ever since.
“It gets in your blood,” she says. “You can’t get rid of it.”
That passion has driven her life. In high school, she scheduled her classes in the morning, skipping a study period and lunch to free her afternoons for dance. When noted dance teachers passed through town, she made sure she was on hand for their classes. She even traveled to Chicago for private lessons with Gene Kelly, who introduced her to dance forms unimagined in Dallas.
“He was so far ahead of his time,” she says. There were only three studios in Dallas, she says, and “we were desperate for instruction.”
To improve Dallas’ dance culture, Skelton has devoted much of her career to promoting dance in Dallas and throughout Texas. She was instrumental in the formation of the old Dallas Civic Ballet and the Southwestern Regional Ballet Association, and she has served on a number of local and statewide organizations.
In her 37 years as owner, director and teacher of the Natalie School of Dance in Pleasant Grove, she brought in world-class talent such as ballet dancers Natalie Krassovska and Bill Atkinson and character dancer Jurgen Pagels.
Many of her students have gone on to professional careers in dance, but Skelton believes every child benefits from dance instruction even if he or she doesn’t pursue it professionally.
“I gave away a lot of lessons, but dance can be an introduction to so many different things, to a love not only of dance but of the arts.
“It gives them something to enjoy all their lives.”
Skelton’s most lasting contribution to dance in Dallas may have begun in 1973, when she and Mary Bywaters, another dance teacher, founded the Dallas Dance Council. Now a 300-member organization, the Council promotes dance through activities such as providing mailing lists and volunteers for special events and scholarships for dancers.
The group also sponsors special classes, publishes a quarterly newsletter and hosts its own production, “Dance for the Planet,” where 80 local companies perform international varieties of dance.
Such activities help bring dancers from all disciplines together.
“Dance is a language all its own,” Skelton says. “Dancers always have something to talk about; it doesn’t matter their age or nationality.”
Each year, the Council presents the Mary Award (named after co-founder Bywaters) to recognize an individual’s lifetime contribution to dance. Skelton received this recognition in 1989.
Now 81, Skelton works with the Art District Friends, the Dallas Morning News Dance Festival and the Southwest Regional Ballet Association, along with the Dallas Dance Council.
Her daughter is encouraging her to slow down and pick only a few projects each year with special meaning to her.
“But I don’t want to give anything up,” Skelton says. “All my life, I’ve loved what I’ve done, and it’s all been with dance.”