“Splendid.” “A born dancer.” “A delight to watch.” Those were the words an adjudicator with a Wellington, New Zealand, dance competition wrote about dancer Esmé de Roland Burt following a performance in 1931.
The ballerina, who would later be known as Bebe Eversfield, a towering figure in the Victoria dance community, was just seven at the time. The prodigious talent would flower into both an exemplary dancer and once-in-a-lifetime personality.
Eversfield died in Victoria in February at the age of 97, a fully-lived life of glitz and glamour in her rearview mirror, along with a teaching legacy that is an integral part of local lore.
Her death resulted in an outpouring of emails to the Times Colonist, with many writing about their fond memories of her dance school on Broad Street.
“I knew she was very popular, but I didn’t know the extent of how many lives she touched,” said Craig Eversfield, one of four sons born to Bebe and Norman Eversfield, who were married in 1948.
Eversfield said he expects many who attend his mother’s public celebration of life, scheduled for Sunday at 2 p.m. at CFB Esquimalt, to be wowed by what the family has on display, including press clippings and photos from her early days as a dancer.
For many years in Victoria, she kept her personal and professional lives separate. It wasn’t until the last 10 years or so that her sons, who played sports and did not dance, came to know the full scope of her performing career, which included both film and theatre work in England and Australia.
“She never really told us any of this stuff. She was so humble,” Eversfield said. “I’d say: ‘Mom, I never knew you were so good.’ And she’d say: ‘I was OK.’ ”
She was better than OK. By the time she was 16, Eversfield was the closest thing to famous in the dance world at the time, joining a very small group of New Zealand-born dancers to earn the title of prima ballerina.
“She won every award,” said Sylvia Hosie, a longtime friend and one of Eversfield’s former students. “But it got to the point where she wasn’t allowed to compete anymore because she had won all the prizes.”
Due to the rigours of her career, Eversfield didn’t have what resembled a traditional home until she built and designed one for her family in Esquimalt.
She could often be found there, dressed impeccably — always in high heels — working away in her garden or dancing in the kitchen. “She was all about life,” Hosie said, laughing at the memory. “She just loved life.”
Dance is about precision, but personal expression — the desire to create — is also key. Eversfield valued both in equal amounts, and instilled that in her thousands of Victoria students over the years, including Esther John, later of the San Francisco Ballet, Ruth Norgaard (Les Grands Ballets Canadiens) and Todd Carter (The National Ballet of Canada).
Two other former Victoria students, General Hospital star Kathleen Gati and Oscar nominee Meg Tilly, eventually pursued careers in acting.
Eversfield was everything to her students. Local notables Hosie, Virginia (Gini) Foley, Brenda Jagdis and Sherry Black, who each took some of the first classes Eversfield ever taught in Victoria, during the mid-1950s, would remain close with their former teacher up until her death.
They met often for lunch, Hosie said, where Eversfield would leave her guests awed by the experience.
Eversfield left little to chance; she always knew exactly what she wanted, right up to the formalities of her celebration of life. When she knew the end was near, she communicated to her regular lunch guests how she wanted the service to proceed, from the flowers to the music. “She knew exactly how she wanted it to go,” Hosie said. “She had to be part of it.”
When she began teaching classes, in what was then Velda Willie’s studio, “she could still really dance,” Hosie said.
Eversfield eventually took the reins of the studio and in 1958 renamed it The Victoria School of Theatrical Arts. It was one of the many projects that bear her fingerprints today. “A lot of people become teachers who haven’t been on the road, haven’t been on tour, they just became teachers. But she walked the walk and talked the talk,” Hosie said.
At her 95th birthday party, Eversfield wore gold heels with a matching purple dress and coat. Classiness was her calling card, once and forever. “She looked like a million bucks — better than any of us,” Hosie said with a laugh.
Her rich legacy will live on through the Bebe de Roland Eversfield Ballet Scholarship, which is being distributed through the DanceWorks Scholarship Endowment Fund via the Victoria Foundation.
It will support a young hopeful making their way in the world of dance, which she would have appreciated, her son said.
“So many people I’ve spoken to said she would bring out their best,” Eversfield said. “She would see something in them that they didn’t see.”
• A public celebration of life for Bebe Eversfield is scheduled for Sunday at 2 p.m. at CFB Esquimalt, Chief and Petty Officer’s Mess, 1575 Lyall St.
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