Cheryl Baxter is the epitome of “The Working Dancer.” Born into a family of dance teachers, she gave her first performance at the age of two and has been performing ever since. Now, some sixty years later she can be seen on this years Grammy’s as a back-up dancer for “DaBaby.” For Cheryl there has never been a lull in her extraordinary career. Key to Cheryl’s longevity is her versatility, a great hoofer, well trained in jazz and ballet and a performer who radiates joy from the stage all come together to make her the perfect package. Did I mention she sings too? Well, she does. In Part One of this interview, I ask about her early training with her amazing mother Betty Hayes who has run her successful dance studio for 75 years, an accomplishment about to be recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records. If Cheryl’s career continues at this pace she too will enter the Guinness Book as most consistently working commercial dancer ever!
Question #1. I know that your Mother has owned “The Betty Hayes School Of Dance” since she was 17 yrs. old. She’s 90 now and has kept the studio running for almost 75 years, which is extraordinary. Can you please tell us about her early training, professional career and how she came to own a studio at 17?
My mom started dancing at the age of three in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The classes were a mixture of tap, ballet and character dance. When she was 15 she toured with the Maxine Zipper dance troupe performing for USO shows and at State Fairs opening for acts such as Lula Bell and Scotty. The group traveled in an undertaker’s hearse that was turned into limousine and she remembers that it made her feel like a star. My Mom moved with her parents to a rural area when she was a senior in High School. Her classmates knew she was a dancer and wanted dance lessons. They persuaded her to start teaching. So, barely seventeen, shortly after World War II, she started the Betty Hayes School of Dance, where she has been teaching ever since. I am very proud of my mom for having the initiative to start and maintain her own business since 1947. She defied the odds in an era when business opportunities for women were few and far between. My Mom was tenacious and hard working but she also met the world head on with a fun spirit and an optimistic outlook and she still does to this day.
Question #2. Tell us a little about your early training at your Mother’s school and how this became a family affair with your Dad pitching in to teach acrobatics.
My training as a dancer began in my mother’s studio when I was two years old. She made sure I was onstage performing before my third birthday. I was tap dancing as soon as I could walk and I was trained in ballet and jazz as well. At that time my Mom was a traveling dance teacher going from small town to small town around Wisconsin teaching in rented spaces. She had a huge following and at one point taught in 19 different locations. Yet, she still had the energy to teach at her home studio in the basement of our house. It was a family business. My grandmother played the piano for the dance classes in the early years until my Mom switched to records. My Dad, who was a mail carrier, had learned basic gymnastics while in the Navy. As soon as his mail route was done for the day he taught the tumbling and basic acrobatics classes. Mom and dad also taught ballroom classes to adults. As a child, my fondest memory of my parents is watching them glide across the floor doing a beautiful waltz.
Question #3. You come from a very small town in Wisconsin, nowhere near the epicenter of dance so, how was your Mother able to stay current and keep the school thriving?
I grew up in Avoca Wisconsin, which has a population of 363 people. Mom knew the importance of keeping her dance school current so we traveled each month to Chicago for dance conventions and to study with Gus Giordano. During the summer we would go to New York City so we could see the latest Broadway shows and study with Luigi, Frank Hatchett, and Jo Jo Smith. Conventions in those days were the best thing for dance teachers. Mom would be in the teacher’s room and I would be in the student’s room and we would bring back great material to teach our students. I was teaching by the time I was twelve. Mom paid me 50cents per class. At some point Mom realized that I needed to be in a professional ballet school so she drove me twice a week to take class from Tibor Zana, at the Madison School of Ballet. I don’t know how she kept up the pace but my Mom’s energy level was off the charts, still is. I loved teaching at the studio with my Mom. She taught me patience, how to handle any situation that arose, like out of control boys or terrified toddlers but moreover she taught me how to teach dance with joy.
Question #4. When did you realize you love to perform?
I always loved to perform. Even as a small child I had a big personality onstage. Growing up in a small community, you are always performing for some event. But back in the 60’s and 70’s, one of the biggest thrills for a non-professional was to be on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour in New York City, filmed at the Ed Sullivan Theater. My dance class went through weeks of auditions performing a vaudeville tap routine known as the Chain Dance. Six of us tap danced in a line similar to a chain gang, with our right legs connected to one chain and our left legs to another. We did a series of hard tap steps and high kicks. The audience loved it and Ted Mack loved it and said he was impressed with our ability to be synchronized while chained together. So, there we were a group of12 year olds from Avoca, Wisconsin on National television as The Betty Hayes Chain Dancers. Sadly, after 25 years, Ted Mack was taken off the air, but we had the honor of performing on his very last show. My teen years were spent singing and dancing throughout the Midwest in the “Kids From Wisconsin.” Later, I went to college at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where I joined the “Wisconsin Singers.” We got invited to the White House to perform for President Jimmy Carter, which was very exciting.
I fell in love with musical theater by doing local summer productions. These casts were a mix of professionals and amateurs. My first show was “Jesus Christ Superstar” starring Tom Wopat who was not well known yet. I think I fell a little in love with him too but then that’s another story. I was also a shark in Westside Story because I had dark hair!
After a year at college, I realized I couldn’t get what I needed from the dance and theater department and decided to move to Chicago to get more training before heading to Los Angeles where I thought I might be able to work. Little did I know I’d still be working more than 40 years later!
I loved growing up as a dance teacher’s daughter. I was very fortunate to grow up in a small town and still have the opportunities that a big city had to offer. I was one lucky girl.
Cheryl began working in Los Angeles from the moment she hit town. In Part Two we will discuss these productive years and her experience working for top choreographers of the 1980’s.
Cheryl Baxter has been working in the entertainment business for over 40 years. Beginning with Xanadu in 1980 she has worked on more than 20 films including One From The Heart, Death Becomes Her, Tap, Grease 2, Pennies From Heaven, 500 Days Of Summer, This Is It and The Muppet Movie to name a few. Cheryl has danced beside such Tap legends as Gregory Hines, Sammy Davis Jr. The Nicholas Brothers and Donald O’Connor. She was in the first national companies of 42nd Street, Cats and Sophisticated ladies including the Broadway telecast. Television credits include Glee, the Academy and Golden Globe Awards, How I Met Your Mother, Community, Mike and Molly, Crazy Ex –Girlfriend, Bless This Mess, Casual, Lucifer and most recently appeared as a back-up dancer on the VMA’S with Miley Cyrus and on the 2021 Grammy Awards with DaBaby.
She has been an assistant choreographer to Gene Kelly, Kenny Ortega, Walter Painter, Gene Castle and Tam Warner among others. As a choreographer for the soap operas General Hospital and Port Charles, she worked extensively with actors creating their dance scenes. She has directed and choreographed theatrical productions worldwide including shows for Universal Studios in Hollywood, Japan and Singapore, as well as productions for Disney and Sesame Street Live. Currently Cheryl is one of the producers of the World Choreography Awards honoring choreographers in all forms of media and is also on the musical theater/dance faculty at UCLA and AMDA.
Check out Cheryl’s TikTok page HERE.
Written by Tam Warner for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Cheryl Baxter (Stage Left) in 42nd Street – Photo courtesy of the artist.