Sporting one of her favorite looks, Gwendolyn Biddle brightens Morgan University’s library at an NCNW meeting.

The music has slowed just a little with the passing of one of the Baltimore-Washington area’s icons, Gwendolyn Biddle – dancer, choreographer, teacher, model and fashion designer, who died March 3 from complications of Alzheimer’s.

Known to many as a one-lady Peace Corps because of her global travels and contributions to dance made everywhere, Ms. Biddle epitomized “joie de vivre” for she saw and brought the joy of life everywhere she went. The entire world was her dance stage, and she was both student and instructor.

While many performers, musicians and artists have had abbreviated life spans, others like Biddle, who was 92 years old, and her mentor dancer, Katherine Dunham, who passed away at age 96, appear to have enjoyed extended lifespans, perhaps due to the athleticism of their early years.

“Miss Gwen,” as she was known to her dance school students of nearly four decades, was a native Washington who graduated from Howard University in 1950, after attending Dunbar High School in Washington. She moved to Baltimore after obtaining her degree.

The dancer was the daughter of a Washington musician and postal worker, Grant Biddle and Francine Biddle, a dancer.  Her parents were friends of Duke Ellington and a circle other jazz greats.

It was her mother who imparted her enthusiasm for dance, diverse cultures, and community activism to Ms. Biddle. During World War II, Gwen and her mother organized shows for Army and Navy troops, as well as mother-and-daughter pageants for local schools.

Gulf Oil created an endowed scholarship in the name of Gwendolyn Biddle, who was honored by the Howard University Alumni Association in 2012. (HUAA PHOTO)

Upon arriving in Baltimore, Ms. Biddle began designing costumes and other fashions for the Arthur Murray Dance Studios, which were very popular nationally at that time.  She had by that point taken years of dance from Washington instructors and was interested in operating a dance instruction business of her own. Two years after graduating from college, Ms. Biddle converted the basement of her home on Bentalou Street into a mirrored dance studio, and started the Francine School of Dance.

In the years that followed, Ms. Biddle received additional dance training at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo School, Luigi’s Dance Center in New York – which still attracts the best artists – and later even the June Taylor Dancers, famous for their regular appearances on “The Jackie Gleason Show.”

All forms of dance interested her, whether classical ballet, tap, Indian classical, flamenco, jazz, Oriental or African.

Ms. Biddle began to travel throughout the world performing, studying and teaching dance, visiting nearly every continent at a time when few Baltimore African Americans travelled outside of the Delmarva area. Her travels took her to Spain, Italy, the Far East, throughout Central America, South America and Africa. She also travelled annually to New York with students to participate in the dance teacher’s workshop. In June of 1969 having taught at the Francine School of Dance for 17 years, Ms. Biddle announced that she was taking a one year sabbatical to travel to the Amazon River region of Peru  and other areas in South America to study indigenous dance.

Gwendolyn Biddle also held membership in the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers (NAFAD).  In 1963, she and other African-American fashion designers from Baltimore, Washington and New York competed at the Alcazar Hotel (which later became the Baltimore School for the Arts) for the right to compete at the national level in Chicago.  Ms. Biddle, modeling her own creations, prevailed.

Once one of the most popular members of Baltimore’s “polite” society, Gwendolyn Biddle organized cotillions, including designing the formal outfits of debutantes, sub-debs and mothers, and gave dance and etiquette instruction to the fathers and escorts.

She was as equally well-known to Baltimore’s working class as to the Jack and Jill set.

Ms. Biddle used her knowledge and exposure to costume design, makeup, cultural foods, cooking and poise to teach home economics and dance in the Baltimore City Public School System for 24 years: beginning in 1961 at Booker T. Washington and Clifton Junior High schools, then at Forest Park High School, from which she retired in 1985.

In 1996, at age 72, Gwendolyn Biddle was among a group of seniors leading memory classes at local nursing homes, where she recalled her experience being taught the flamenco – considered a forbidden gypsy dance – in fire-lit caves in Spain. What memories to share!

In April 2009 Ms. Biddle was among a group of much younger performing artists who led a discussion about Cuba and demonstrations of Cuban dance at Douglass Memorial Community Church.

Lending her rich personal and historical perspective, Gwen Biddle discussed her experiences as a performing artist in Cuba during the pre-Castro days.

Gwendolyn Biddle exuded self-confidence and it was infectious. Her effervescent personality facilitated her movement among some of Black and White America’s most glamorous and accomplished artists.

Years later when she once again became closely affiliated with her alma mater Howard University, the Gulf Oil Foundation decided to endow a scholarship in her name and, to this day, annually awards the Gulf Oil Foundation Gwendolyn E. Biddle Endowed Scholarship to Howard University’s dance majors.

The Greater Baltimore Section of the National Council of Negro Women will remember Ms. Biddle as one of its most enduring and prolific members. She was most recently honored by the group in June 2013, at a point when her health had begun to decline.

“She was famous for her collection of beautiful tea ware, which was often placed on display for NCNW’s annual Mary’s Tea event.  She taught us etiquette, and shows us all how to grow old with grace and style,” said Chrishawn Calloway, president of the Greater Baltimore Section of the National Council of Negro Women. “Ms. Biddle was a debonair, classy, smart, talented and funny lady, who brought out those attributes in others.  It is unlikely that someone like her will come along again because she was unique.”

Besides the National Council of Negro Women, Ms. Biddle’s other long time affiliations included the Girls Scouts of America, with which she served as a troop leader, and the NAACP.

While she never married and had no children, she had hundreds of children who were her prodigies. Some like Marcia Howard, one of the girls who trained under Ms. Biddle, later became a founding dancer of Coyaba Dance Theater in Washington. Others like Maria Broom also become dance instructors and performers.

Gwendolyn E. Biddle will be memorialized in a service, 10 a.m. April 11 at Charlestown Our Lady of the Angels Chapel, 711 Maiden Choice Lane.