Few can choreograph life, but Verla Flowers came close. Anyone who wanted to move was welcome in the Seattle dance instructor's classroom, from tiny prodigies to mature beginners. They only had to decide whether they wanted to hula or tap, tie on a pair of pointe shoes or master the castanets' rhythmic clack.
For years, Greenwood's Verla Flowers Dance Arts studio was an after-school hub for countless dancers. Some of her students blossomed into Rockettes, Vegas performers and Mouseketeers. Among her most famous students is world-renowned choreographer Mark Morris.
Family and close friends remember her easy laughter and warmth, and deep hugs always accompanied by a cheerful "Love, love, love!"
When Morris thinks of her, he said in a phone interview from his New York City studio, he doesn't recall one particular story or anecdote. "It was a whole life of things," he explained. "She was unbelievably fabulous, and generous, and supportive and great."
David Nash, another former student who went on to dance in Las Vegas and New York, recalled how her skills amazed him.
"There she was in her mid-60s with a spry 19-year-old kid, and she was putting on her taps and dancing circles around him," he said.
Miss Flowers, who wore her jingling silver tap shoes well into her 70s, died Saturday at Columbia Lutheran Home after a long illness. She was 88.
Her life left a lasting impact on Seattle and the world.
Countless photos show her in many guises: proud and motherly as she stands by her piano with her daughter, Wendy, and her husband, Ted Halladay, or rivaling Marlene Dietrich's glamour in a satin top hat and tails, holding a cane.
A room in her Ballard home displays a collection of genteel tea cups, a wall of videotaped dance performances from the likes of Fred Astaire to Elvis, alongside a corner shrine to George Clooney. He rated fourth on her list of loves; tied for first were her husband, her family and dancing.
Dance kept her so busy, Halladay recalled, "I think I had 10 years of a 60-year marriage that was actually a marriage." He says this without a note of bitterness; Miss Flowers was the girl his family moved next door to when he was 22. She invited him to make sets for her performances, ensnaring his heart with her moves.
"Her hula dancing was a big" ... he paused, then broke into peals of laughter before simply saying, "She was a real doll."
Born in 1913, she inherited her love of footwork from her mother, Augusta. As a young woman she performed around Seattle with her sister, Lorna Flowers Smith, as the Halloween Sisters, a nod to their mutual Oct. 31 birthday. Dance was never just a diversion to Miss Flowers, who studied under a number of prominent teachers, including Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
Miss Flowers began teaching when she was 14, giving lessons in her parents' Ballard home before opening a studio in Kirkland. Over the years, she maintained a number of studios around Western Washington before opening the Verla Flowers Dance Arts studio in Greenwood in the 1950s.
Students chose from a number of dance forms to study, including ballet, jazz, tap, acrobatics, baton, belly dancing, Hawaiian, ballroom, Spanish, even breakdancing.
This all-encompassing approach to dance and innovation made her studio as much a community fixture as it was a dance school.
Morris said he sought to replicate that feeling when he opened his school. Long before he achieved international fame, he was sent to Miss Flowers as a rambunctious but talented prodigy other teachers couldn't handle. From the age of 9 until he was 17, Morris was schooled by Miss Flowers in Spanish dance. She even allowed him to choreograph recital pieces.
"That's where Mark gets his ability to choreograph dance, from Verla," Halladay said. "She really knew how to put the steps together."
Verla Flowers Dance Arts remained open until 1990, when she retired.
In addition to her husband, Miss Flowers is survived by her daughter, Wendy Jean Jewett, granddaughters Lisa Gallucci-Speer, Joelle Sessions and Leanne Lettice; and three great grandsons. Family and friends are invited to celebrate her life at a gathering from 1-4 p.m. April 7 at the Elks Club, 6411 Seaview Ave. N.W., Seattle.
Melanie McFarland can be reached at email@example.com.