Being a Melba’s Girl means much more than dancing with poise and grace. Melba’s Girls will say it’s much more than pointed toes and perfect pliés
Melba Huber, whose first name has long been a staple in the Rio Grande Valley’s dance community since she established Melba’s School of Dance in McAllen in 1958, made sure her girls were not only graceful on stage, but in character as well.
Melba, a beloved dance instructor whose footprint in the dance community spans the globe, died on April 24 at 93 years old after a life dedicated to bolstering and loving her students. And the way she showed her love was by sharing her adoration for dance and music.
Melba’s funeral service will open to the public and will begin at 11 a.m. on Monday at Legacy Chapels in Edinburg.
The accolades Melba received throughout the years are abundant, including the Flo Bert Award at Lincoln Center in 1996 (of which she was the first person in New York to receive), the Savion Glover Award at the St. Louis Tap Festival in 1998, the Texas Tap Legend Award in 2007, and Member of the Year of the South Texas chapter of Dance Masters of America in 1989.
Renown dancers such as Donald O’Connor who starred in the 1952 classic “Singin’ in the Rain,” was a close friend of hers, and Melba helped Tony Award winning Betty Buckley — who sang “Memory” in the Broadway production of “Cats” — get her foot in the door in New York City.
Melba was presented a Texas flag by state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. in 1997 for her achievements as a businesswoman and dance instructor. But Melba’s real legacy is her students. And in the way they speak about her, it’s clear she has left a strong legacy.
When Melba’s girls are asked to describe who Melba was to them, the answers vary. “A magnificent force.” “Monolithic.” “A gift to the world.” “A treasure.” “Like Dumbledore in Harry Potter.”
Kathleen Byrnes-Black who started dancing at Melba’s in 1960 at 8 years old, said when she was younger, she thought Melba “looked like Snow White.”
“I just absolutely adore her and have incredible respect for her,” said Byrnes-Black. “She was my mentor, my teacher, my mother. She had more impact on me than anyone else in my life, that I can tell you for sure.”
Whether they had Melba as an instructor, or had instructors who had her as an instructor, or had instructors who had instructors who had her as an instructor, the hundreds of students who have learned styles of dance at the school carry “being a Melba’s Girl” as part of their identity long after their last recital.
“It’s something girls have been using for generations: you’re a Melba’s girl,” said Julie Reyes, who started dancing at Melba’s in 1987 when she was 6 years old and has been the school’s director of dance since 2008. “And being a Melba’s girl, that’s the way you carry yourself in society. It’s the way you perform academically, it’s the way you respect other people.”
It was important to Melba that her girls had caring hearts and were strong not only physically to carry themselves elegantly on stage but also in confidence outside of the dance studio.
Meredith Weisehan-Sutton, who started dancing at Melba’s in 1997 at 4 years old, said at the dance studio she and the others learned “what it meant to be women of character and strength, and what it meant to have great expectations for ourselves.”
After moving to McAllen from Austin in the late 50s, Melba opened the one-studio school on Sycamore Avenue. It has now moved into the well-known seven-studio building on 10th Street where hundreds of girls have learned how to dance ballet, tap, jazz and hip hop.
Melba grounded her feet in the Valley, but her hand in guiding students to achieve impressive dance careers stretches much father.
Melissa Lenz, who started dancing at Melba’s in 1984 when she was 7 years old, toured Tokyo with Disney as a dancer before joining the Radio City Rockettes. Many others have also joined Disney productions, playing characters such as Peter Pan and Snow White. Others have starred in Broadway shows such as “In the Heights,” “A Chorus Line,” and “The Addams Family.”
Andrea Torres, who started at Melba’s at 2 years old in 1989 is currently an international choreographer and performer whose dance career has taken her all around the world, including the UK, China and Scotland. She was also the manager of the Broadway Dance Center in NYC from 2011 to 2014.
“It’s a whole network of dancers stemming from her, and it goes way beyond dancing,” said Reyes. “She was a treasure in the dance world that I’m not sure people in McAllen really knew about, but man, when she went to New York City, people knew who that woman was.”
Melba’s love for dance turned into a passion for teaching others, and it happened early in life. The first time she gave lessons was during World War II when she taught children while their parents worked in shipyards in Beaumont, her hometown.
After founding the University of Texas in Austin’s first permanent dance team as a student, Melba started teaching dance classes at Huston-Tillotson University, a historically Black college while segregation was still in place.
During the later decades of her career, Melba wrote columns for international dance magazines about tap dancers across the nation — dancers she believed were not getting the recognition they deserved. Most of those she wrote about were people of color.
“She believed in equality, hard work and grace — giving people a lot of grace,” said Carey Kinsolving, Melba’s son. “And they’re very intertwined. If you are training to have grace in your movement, would it be possible that it might lead to some grace in the way you treat people?”
Carey is the eldest of Melba’s three children. She had Carey and his younger brother Keith Kinsolving with Bill Kinsolving, who died last year. She had her youngest, Laurin Huber, with Jim Huber, who died in 1971. Luarin died in 2018 after a devastating car accident.
Carey says his mom was the most generous person he has ever known.
Melba often let students work at the studio as instructors for the younger ballerinas or help out doing office work in exchange for tuition. It’s similar to how Melba’s mother covered dance classes.
Melba started dancing at 5 years old in 1932, and her mother, Melba Stuart, played piano at her ballet and tap dances to cover tuition.
Years later, that sort of generosity led to Melba’s becoming a second home for students. Many of Melba’s Girls call her their second mother who guided them long after they graduated from the school, offering advice through college and into marriages and parenthood.
“While we may not be family by blood, the kinship that the Melba’s girls had with her, and the kinship that I had with her, it was a bond that was just stronger than family,” Reyes said.
Melba may have just started one school, but the cascade of great dancers who have been inspired by her to pursue teaching will keep her legacy alive for many generations to come.
Weisehan-Sutton is now a dance professor at Baylor University, and Lenz has been teaching gymnastics at a school in Arizona for nearly three decades. Byrnes-Black, who was Weisehan-Sutton’s instructor, was an instructor at Melba’s until she was 30.
“When I teach, it’s basically Melba through me,” Weisehan-Sutton said. “I’ve picked up a few things along the way but my entire foundation is Melba.”
Many more students have also taught dance at universities or started their own dance schools — and the place they started teaching others how to dance was at Melba’s. Weisehan-Sutton started as an assistant teacher at the dance school at 16, and Lenz at 15.
“Melba is in everyone’s hearts, we all carry a piece of her,” Reyes said. “Even in the kids who don’t know her, the new preschoolers, they are Melba’s girls. And what a gift to the world that is.”
Not all of Melba’s girls become professional dancers — most don’t. Former students can still hear Melba hitting a tambourine on her thigh to help the class keep a beat, but they’ll say it’s what she taught them after class that has stayed in their hearts.
It was those lessons that shaped young girls to become not only skilled dancers, but also kind, responsible and courageous people.
“We know that 99% of Melba’s dance girls do not go on to study dance, but every year we have at least one valedictorian in high school and a chunk of our girls go to Ivy Leagues,” Reyes said. “Our girls go on to do great things, and it’s all rooted in that Melba’s Girl mantra.”
Carey said his mother once told him that she could watch a dance just one time, could close her eyes and replay the whole routine in her head. Her love of and talent for dance were that strong.
“I love my mother dearly, and it’s very difficult to imagine life without her,” he said. “But she would want us all to go on. Right now you have very very sad dancing teachers down at Melba’s.”
The school’s first recital of the year began with shows Saturday and will run until Tuesday at the McAllen Performing Arts Center. The last day of performances will be Sunday, Mother’s Day, with shows slated for 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased through melbasdance.com.
Weisehan-Sutton was born with her feet turned in so extremely that she would fall after walking just a few steps. Before considering a brace or surgery, her parents put her in ballet classes at Melba’s when she was in kindergarten in hopes that exercise would help straighten her feet.
Within a year, she was walking normally.
“There are no words to express what she has meant to me, or the gratitude I have for the many lessons that reached far beyond dance that she gave me,” she wrote in a Facebook post.
“Perhaps, I’ll just do a little dance.”