When Marie Roberts performed a tap dance number with Jack Rand’s Dance School in 1932, she thought it was just a routine performance. What she didn’t know was Atlanta Ballet founder Dorothy Alexander was in the audience, and Roberts had her complete attention.
After the show, Alexander offered Roberts a scholarship to the Atlanta School of Ballet, and the talented 9-year-old traded in her tap shoes for ballet slippers, starting her down a path toward becoming a successful dancer and choreographer.
Roberts remained at the Atlanta School of Ballet until 1935, when she became a charter member of the Dorothy Alexander Dance Art Group, which was consolidated into the Atlanta Civic Ballet in 1941. She remained there until she and fellow dancer Hilda Gumm decided they wanted to begin teaching and choreographing on their own. So in 1947, Roberts and Gumm founded the Decatur School of Ballet in a small room above an ice cream parlor in downtown Decatur, said current Decatur ballet school owner, Kathleen Everett.
“I think both of them had such a passion for teaching, leading and directing,” Everett said. “That’s what spurred them to do their own school and company.”
A few years later, Roberts and Gumm founded an Atlanta Civic Ballet junior company known as the Decatur Civic Ballet, which became an independent company in 1962 and is now known as Decatur City Dance. Throughout her work with the school and company, Roberts taught and mentored students ages 3 and up, and in addition to teaching dance, she also strived to inspire her students to become teachers themselves, Everett said.
“I would call her a ballet teacher’s teacher,” she said.
Marie Ellen Roberts of Atlanta died Sunday from complications of heart failure at St. Joseph’s Hospital. She was 90.
Her graveside service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday at Arlington Memorial Park. H.M. Patterson & Son, Arlington Chapel is handling the arrangements.
Throughout her career, Roberts was a role model and mentor who left a lasting impression on her students, most of whom became professional dancers, teachers and owners of dance companies, said her husband of 68 years, Everett Lee Roberts of Atlanta.
“She mentored quite a lot of young ladies,” he said. “And not just for dance, but also for other things. That’s what made her so enduring.”
Roberts’ career as a full-time choreographer and teacher ended when she and Gumm sold the Decatur ballet school to Kathleen Everett in 1980, but she guest taught at other studios around Atlanta and continued to serve as a mentor and adviser. Her contributions to dance and choreography won’t soon be forgotten.
“Not all dancers can make good choreography, too. But she did,” her husband said.
The Decatur School of Dance will dedicate their annual performance to Roberts when they perform on May 17 at the Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech.
In addition to her husband, Roberts is survived by a daughter, Alicia C. Roberts of Hoschton; a son, Douglas Lee Roberts of Castaic, Calif.; five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.