The Way We Were: Betty Swenson Bergmark

The Way We Were: Betty Swenson Bergmark
Betty Bergmark as Director of Dance Studios at Jacksonville University, circa 1979

She gazed from her 8th floor balcony at the clear blue sky and the calm St. Johns River, remembering a turbulent time long ago when she danced as bombs dropped from the dark London skies. 

“I was still a teenager when I began dancing professionally for the Royal Carl Rosa Ballet in London,” recalled Betty Swenson Bergmark, whose stage name was Lisa Brunelle. “It was during the blitz, and when air raid sirens went off, we continued the performance. After that first night of bombs, we would stop the performance when the sirens went off and everyone gathered in the safest section of the theatre.”

Being a ballerina in wartime was both challenging and thrilling. Audiences needed a diversion from the hardships of war, and young Lisa Brunelle felt privileged to provide that diversion. The joy of dance still sparkles in her eyes as she spoke of performing at age 4 or 5 for an impromptu audience at a London tea room and, later, dancing on stage at recitals as a child. “That’s Jack!” she declared, pointing at a decades-old photograph of a young girl (Betty) and her dance recital partner.

Betty Bergmark

Betty Bergmark

“I began my formal training with Phyllis Bedells of the Royal Academy of Dance, studied with Nikolas Sergueff, Stanislaus Idzikowski and Ninette de Valois, and was a soloist with International Ballet and the Allied Ballet during World War II,” Bergmark said, adding that she was a roommate of Moira Shearer (“The Red Shoes”) at the famous Sadler’s Wells Ballet School (later, the Royal Ballet). 

It was while touring with an ENSA (British USO) troupe that Bergmark met an American Air Force Officer named Al Swenson. They fell in love and were married in 1945 “between VE Day and VJ day.” Following the war, Al and Betty Swenson moved to the New York area where Al was employed by British Airways. While devoted to raising their three children, Bergmark continued her love of dance as well, founding dance studios in three different areas of New York and New Jersey. 

When she needed an instructor for a pas de deux (dance partnering) in her New Jersey studio, one impoverished but promising young dancer named Patrick Swayze applied for the position. “In those days, Patrick didn’t have enough money for his fare to the studio,” recalls Bergmark. “We would go to the bus station and pick him up.” Many years later, the late film star visited Bergmark’s studio at Jacksonville University, but unfortunately, only a faded snapshot remains to memorialize that visit.

And how did this lovely classical ballerina become the Director of Dance Studies at our own Jacksonville University? When her late husband, Al Swenson, retired from British Airways, the couple moved to Amelia Island in 1977 to take up golf and other leisure activities, but as always, dance was never far from Bergmark’s mind. 

Joining the Ballet Guild of Jacksonville, she met then President Judith Erwin, who introduced her to Dr. Frances Kinne, then Jacksonville University’s Dean of the College of Fine Arts. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

“Dr. Kinne was impressed with Betty’s credentials,” recalled Erwin, “and JU’s dance program was just beginning when Betty came out of retirement and began there in 1979. My daughter, Allison Erwin Norton, now the Artistic Director of Dance Theatre of Bradenton and Bradenton Ballet Repertory, was in Betty’s first class at JU.”

Betty Bergmark, aka Lisa Brunelle, in November 1942

Betty Bergmark, aka Lisa Brunelle, in November 1942

In 1987, “VUE, The Arts Magazine” featured a photo of Mikhail Baryshnikov on the cover and an article inside titled “Betty Swenson: Putting a Dance Department on its Toes.” She smiles today when she looks at the magazine. “Baryshnikov and me in the same magazine!” she declared. “That was enjoyable.”

The VUE article lauded the excellent work of Betty Swenson in building the JU Dance program from “serving approximately 25 students, without a dance-degree program offered, to serving well over 200 students, with B.A., B.S., or B.F.A. dance degrees available.” 

The article, written by Judith Erwin (now author of three novels), also pointed out that Bergmark considered it essential to have interaction with the community. Bergmark was quoted as saying, “The university is not isolated, but an integral part of the community. By exchanging talent and opportunities with local artists, we can all grow and perpetuate our art.” 

Dr. Frances Kinne, past president of JU, and still actively involved with the University and in the community at age 100, remembers Bergmark fondly. “Betty’s background made her particularly well-adjusted to do a fine job,” said Kinne. “She came at a time when it was very important to be strong and have talent and leadership abilities.  She certainly helped the dance department grow during her 13 years on our faculty.”

Dr. Kinne added, “We had an advantage because the dance department was part of the College of Fine Arts and Betty blended well with all of the arts.” 

A talented actress, visual artist, and writer as well as a brilliant dancer, instructor and choreographer, the former Director of Dance Studies at JU has received acclaim in each of these fields during her long lifetime. While at JU, Bergmark became part of the Member Commission on Accreditation for the National Association Schools of Dance and authored the paper, “Liberal Education of Fine Arts Students,” in addition to actively reaching out to the local arts community. 

Having divorced and remarried in the late 1990s, Betty Swenson Bergmark is now widowed and residing in a high-rise apartment in Lakewood. She is retired from many of the community activities she once so actively contributed to, including serving on the boards of the American College Dance Festival Association, Friday Musicale, The Florida Ballet, and the Jacksonville Chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters, as well as contributing monthly columns on the arts entitled “Encore” to the Mandarin Newsline. 

Betty Bergmark, dancing as Lisa Brunelle, in early 1940s

Betty Bergmark, dancing as Lisa Brunelle, in early 1940s

She remains a lifetime member of the Royal Academy of Dance, and, as to her proudest accomplishments, Bergmark points to being awarded the Phi Kappa Phi Faculty Artist award in 1989 and the Arts Educator Award from the City of Jacksonville in 1991.  She was also awarded the Sears Roebuck Foundation Award for Excellence in Teaching and Campus Leadership in 1991 and the Florida Dance Association Award for Leadership and Excellence in Dance in Florida in 1995.

The fact that Bergmark was listed in Who’s Who in Entertainment in 1992 and 1997 does not surprise her friend, Judith Erwin. “I personally witnessed the respect Betty holds in the world of dance – locally, in New York and in London,” said Erwin.  “Through Betty, my daughter Allison spent a summer at the Royal Academy of Dance in London. I joined her and later did a summer study in law at Oxford. While there, I became good friends with Betty’s late cousin, Jack Morpurgo (father of Michael, who wrote The Warhorse). Betty comes from an interesting and accomplished family!”

Today, the petite dancer with the lovely British accent and marvelous grasp of the English language continues to attend her monthly book club meetings and maintains her membership in The English-Speaking Union, fostering global understanding and good will. 

With a spectacular dancing career behind her, and having earned the unflagging admiration of students, fellow professors, friends and family, Betty Swenson Bergmark is somewhat demure as she acknowledges a lifetime well spent.  “When you’ve lived through the blitz, and kept on dancing,” she said, “you can do just about anything.”

By Susan D. Brandenburg
Resident Community News

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