Ellen P. Eckhardt, 78, taught ballet for 50 years at her school of dance

March 10, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Ellen Price Eckhardt, a former ballet teacher who spent 50 years instilling in her students an appreciation for what she called the "purest" form of dance, died of cancer Saturday at a hospice in Vero Beach, Fla. The former Reisterstown resident was 78.

It was the sight of an elementary school classmate that got young Ellen Price interested in studying dance.

"I remember going to school in the first grade, and a little girl came in with a yellow ballet costume, and I just looked at that ballet costume and I said, `I want that. What do you have to do to get one of those?'" she told the Community Times newspaper at the time of her retirement in 1993.

What followed were years of disciplined study for Mrs. Eckhardt, who was born and raised in Baltimore.

Her parents agreed to enroll her in ballet school, and she became a top-notch student. At age 16 -- a year before her graduation in 1943 from Friends School -- she continued her ballet studies at the Peabody Conservatory of Music.

Mrs. Eckhardt's instructor at Peabody, Bessie Evans, was impressed with her protegee and took her to a summer dance camp in New Hampshire.

"My parents said to Ms. Evans, `What should we do about her dance education?' and she said, `Well. she should be in New York, but that's a terrible place, and if it were my daughter, I wouldn't let her go.' So, it was not to be. It was just not to be," Mrs. Eckhardt said in the interview with the Reisterstown weekly.

She continued studying for more than a decade with Frederic Franklin, who during the 1940s was director of the National Ballet of Washington.

In 1944, she established the Ellen Price School of Dance at the Episcopal Church of the Nativity in Cedarcroft, where she was a member. She moved it to Reisterstown in 1970, as the Ellen Price Eckhardt School of Dance.

In addition to teaching there, she was a dance instructor for 13 years at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

Her students and ballet became a comfort after her first marriage to Robert C. Kearney ended in divorce.

"I could never have gotten through that divorce if I hadn't had the dancing and teaching, because you become very disciplined," she said in the interview.

It was the same determination and discipline that helped the former smoker survive two mastectomies and a laryngectomy that left her without a voice box.

"She was diagnosed with cancer 30 years ago and survived three bouts with the disease. Even though she had to speak with the aid of an electronic voice box, she'd go out and talk to students about the dangers of smoking," said one of her three sons, James M. "Mitch" Kearney of Owings Mills.

While Mrs. Eckhardt never danced professionally, some of her students went on to professional careers, including Stephen Greenston, a St. Paul's School for Boys graduate who became a principal dancer with the Stuttgart Ballet.

"When you're a teacher of anything, if you're worth your salt, you give a part of yourself to your students. You become a part of your students. I do believe that," Mrs. Eckhardt said.

"She enrolled us in dance classes at the Church of the Redeemer, but we were lacrosse players," Mr. Kearney said of his mother's desire for her sons to study dance. "It was Steve Greenston who filled that role for her."

Mrs. Eckhardt was a former member of the Woman's Club of Roland Park, and a member of the Community Church-United Church of Christ in Vero Beach, where she moved in 1998.

She enjoyed attending the ballet and travel.

Plans for a memorial service in Baltimore were incomplete yesterday.

Mrs. Eckhardt is survived by her husband of 36 years, Charles N. "Nat" Eckhardt Jr., a retired manufacturer's representative; two other sons, Robert D. Kearney of Baltimore and Michael B. Kearney of Mount Airy; a stepson, Bruce N. Eckhardt of St. Louis; two stepdaughters, Pamela E. Forbes of Hunt Valley and Deborah E. O'Neill of Ashburn, Va.; 15 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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