Fred Astaire: The Conference
21–24 JUNE 2008

Betsy Baytos

Betsy Baytos has been a performer, dance specialist, and historian and filmmaker focusing on eccentric dance, for the past 30 years. Betsy has been described as a “dancing cartoon” because of her connections to eccentric dance and cartoon animation.

While working as an animator at Walt Disney Studios, Betsy discovered eccentric dance, leading to animation choreography on The Rescuers, Pete’s Dragon, Banjo the Woodpile Cat, Mickey’s Christmas Carol and Kingdom of the Sun. During the next 17 years, Betsy toured nationally as a Disney spokeswoman, including a one-woman show dancing with a cartoon Thumper, while promoting the animated feature Bambi. Through the Disney Channel, she conducted animation workshops around the country, focusing on dance and animation, including one called “Cable In The Classroom,” working with teachers to focus on art in education.

It was a natural progression for Betsy to transition from hand-drawn animation to her creation of the eccentric-dancing “Betsy Bird” for Jim Henson’s Muppet Show in London. Upon returning to the States, Betsy was invited to perform as Betsy Bird in the Muppets’ first live performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Soon after she joined the cast of Will B. Able’s dinner theatre burlesque show, “Baggy Pants & Co.,” in which she was featured as a comedienne and eccentric dance specialist. An invitation soon followed to perform her eccentric dancing at the renowned American Dance Festival’s “Salute To Vaudeville,” followed by the Symphony Space and the Julliard School, demonstrating period dance styles backed by Terry Waldo and the Julliard Orchestra.

Betsy was then featured on NBC’s “Steve Allen Comedy Hour,” in a comedy spot built around her eccentric dancing and featuring Allen. Exploring ways to combine her skills, Betsy began work on Shelley Duvall’s “Faerie Tale Theatre,” designing characters and puppeteering and choreographing for “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “The Nightingale” and “Pinocchio.”

Betsy continued researching eccentric dance, tracking down many of its original masters, and studying with them as she began performing a 1920s eccentric dance act with the top Cotton Club Orchestras throughout New York and California.

Betsy then landed her first Broadway-bound show, the musical review “Stardust,” as the physical comedienne featuring an eccentric dance act she choreographed with her full-sized puppet partner, Maurice. As her reputation spread, Betsy was invited to demonstrate and lecture at the Walker Arts Museum in Minnesota, San Francisco University, and the Artists Development Program at Walt Disney Studios, where she continues to instruct character movement and eccentric dance in a series of workshops for the next generation of animators, while exposing them to the early dance influences of their mentors.

Through her years of research, Betsy has been collecting visual comedy and eccentric dance material, and has amassed the only collection of its kind. She began to refocus her collecting toward a goal of creating a film about eccentric dance, and began interviewing the last remaining eccentric dancers and animators in earnest. In 1996 she presented a special screening of her rough cut, composed of rare clips and interviews, at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, California for more than 1,000 animators and special guests.

During her research, Betsy developed a close relationship with the New York Performing Arts Library, and through a grant from the Jerome Robbins Foundation, she began working to establish the first oral history on eccentric dance, as well as overseeing the film restoration of the rare Fred Stone Collection (Stone himself was one of the great exponents of the eccentric tradition). Within this collection is some film of Stone’s daughter Dorothy dancing in “Gay Divorce” on the Broadway stage with Fred Astaire.

Betsy consulted on Cirque Du Soleil’s “Kooza,” which opened in 2007. She is currently working with Cirque on a new show built around eccentric dancing. She is also choreographing, dancing and consulting on Walt Disney’s upcoming 2-D animated feature, The Princess and the Frog, set in the New Orleans of the 1920s. These projects will aid Betsy in her mission to pass on the art of eccentric dance and physical comedy to the next generation of performers and animators. She continues to conduct workshops and demonstrate and lecture in universities and festivals around the world.

Betsy is now in the final phase of her eccentric dance film project, with a collection of more than 50 interviews representing eccentric dancers and animation artists from eight countries. She also plans for an educational offshoot organizing the material into an interactive database to make clips and interviews accessible for the next generation of performers, researchers and animators. Betsy continues to dance and choreograph in the eccentric tradition and work as an artist.

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