Persis Forster spent her life teaching students far more than steps and technique. As two of her lifelong students recall, the “grande dame” of Arlington’s performing arts scene was best known for schooling trainees of all ages on “everyday things.”
For thousands of middle school-aged children in the Metroplex, that meant learning manners and etiquette in Miss Persis Studio of Dance cotillion classes or learning how to keep their hotel rooms clean while traveling for dance conferences. However large or small the lesson, they kept to Forster’s high standards — often coupled with compassion for those enrolled in her studio.
“She just really affected so many people,” said Persis Ann Forster, one of Persis Forster’s two daughters.
Forster died June 8 at 91, leaving behind a legacy among performers and spectators well beyond DFW. She was an accomplished performer, director and choreographer and held principal roles at theaters across the Metroplex, including Casa Mañana and Theatre Arlington, as well as Lyric Theatre in Oklahoma City and Carousel Dinner Theater in Ohio.
Forster was also a past Texas Association Teachers of Dancing president and the first woman to head the UT Arlington Alumni Association. Forster taught in UTA’s drama department for nearly 19 years and founded Dance Theatre of Arlington in 1981.
The Port Arthur native, reared during the Great Depression, blazed trails during a time when mothers were not typically running businesses or serving in leadership roles.
Her family also remembers her as a quick-witted, exuberant mother of two, grandmother of two, teacher and bon vivant who loved traveling the country with her dance instructor friends, the “Cinderellas.”
“Her mind was very quick, and she was so fast that a lot of people could not keep up with her a lot of the time, and she did not suffer fools gladly,” Persis Ann Forster said.
Dancing through time
Much like the first reincarnation of her studio, Persis Forster’s performing arts career started small.
Tough economic times meant little, if any, funds for formal dance lessons for her mother in her youth, Persis Ann Forster said. While growing up in Fort Worth, her mother could be found singing, dancing or acting in talent shows to get into the movie theater. At her brother’s club, band members would teach her mother dance lessons.
“She never felt poor, but they were poor,” Forster said.
During college at UT Arlington, then North Texas Agricultural College, and UT Austin, Persis Forster taught ballroom classes to a largely male class, many of whom enrolled thanks to the G.I. Bill. Her mother had a gift for teaching as well as the stage, Persis Ann Forster said. Her mother began her teaching career as an intimidating instructor. She softened over the years, but her stern side remained.
“There was a very soft side to her, but she commanded respect whenever she was teaching,” said Mary Alden Wilson, Persis’ grandaughter. “She knew what she was talking about.”
Persis Ann Forster, her sister Kim Wilson and Kim’s daughter, Mary Alden Wilson, grew up in different iterations of the studio. Persis Forster kicked off classes in a three-story house near First Methodist Church in 1954. After moves to downtown Arlington and Town North Shopping Center, 222 W. Main St. became the studio’s permanent home in 2004.
“She was probably a little harder on us than anybody else because people were always saying, ‘Oh, well, you just got that because your mother is the choreographer,’” Persis Ann Forster said.
The studio never participated in competitive dance — a fact that Mary Alden Wilson said allowed the instructors and students to emphasize community service and showmanship through programs including Elf Shows. Classes perform the Christmastime spectacle over 35 times a year as large-bellied Santa Clauses, red-cheeked elves and other familiar festive faces at retirement and nursing homes around the region.
The show is even more intimate for performers, who shake hands with and thank every attendee. Wilson said she remembers the way guests held onto performers’ hands out of appreciation.
Persis Ann Forster agreed.
“It’s much easier to be onstage in a way,” Forster said, when the lights are off and performers cannot see the audience. “If you can learn to do this type of performance, you can learn to do anything.”
Arlington residents who did not perform or take cotillion would likely recognize something that Persis and her studio have touched, from community performances as part of Gown Town Theatre to Elf Shows.
For one, myriad organizations called “The Big P” for shows, including the Arlington Women’s and Men’s clubs, Kiwanis and Rotary groups and hospitals. The programs are more formal than the ones Persis Ann performed in as her mother’s student, when they would make their way to performance venues after school.
“She’d yell, ‘Go put on a costume, we’re going to the nursing home,’” Forster recalled with a laugh.
Wilson has run into people during nights out in Fort Worth who took classes from her grandmother. Her entire sixth grade class, it seemed, took cotillion from Persis Forster. The studio still conducts classes, and Persis Ann Forster said they hope to continue the classes.
Persis Forster also started “I Am,” a program that coupled local public school students with professional teachers and musicians to learn and perform with Dance Theatre of Arlington. The program was aimed at lifting up participants and their families through arts enrichment.
In wake of losing Persis Forster, Persis Ann said the family hopes to keep her traditions alive through the studio. Persis Ann taught alongside her mother for decades and in the later years, managed the group with her. Her mother taught until early 2020.
“I always deferred to her, it’s her business,” Persis Ann said. “Hopefully we can continue in the same vein and keep up the traditions.”
Persis was preceded in death by her husband, Jerry Forster, her parents, Philip C. and Mary Hopkins, her brothers, Donald and Philip J. Hopkins and her grandson, Alex Wilson.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. July 1 at Most Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Arlington. Memorials can be sent to the Dance Theatre of Arlington at 222 W. Main St., Arlington, TX 76010.