Clio in Motion
First Lady In Motion: Betty Ford and the Public Eye

First Lady In Motion: Betty Ford and the Public Eye

M. A. Davis

As with all modern First Ladies, photographs of Betty Ford are easy to find on the Internet. One striking image, taken January 19, 1977 by White House photographer David Hume Kennerly, shows Ford on her last day as First Lady, striking a dancer’s pose atop the Cabinet room table. Smiling at the camera and balanced on her stocking feet, Betty Ford looks happy, taken away from her husband’s political woes and her manifold health problems. This joyful picture, however, went unpublished for fifteen years – the photographer feared that this moment of freedom might be misattributed to Ford’s drug addiction.

During her husband’s presidency, it had never been a secret that Betty Ford had been a professional dancer and dance instructor. People knew she’d been a student of Martha Graham, a performer in Carnegie Hall, a teacher of dance and fashion to disabled children in Grand Rapids before her marriage. But today – fifty years after her husband’s presidency and more than a decade after Betty Ford’s death in 2011 – dancing is no longer part of Betty Ford’s story. When we think of Betty Ford, we might remember her feminist activism, her campaign against breast cancer, and the other worthy causes to which she was devoted. Significantly, as the last First Lady before the rise of the Christian right, her time in the White House marks perhaps the last time in American history that a Republican woman in the public eye could be so unapologetically feminist. But there was, always, more to her than that. Which begs the question: What was the relationship between her activism and her identity as a dancer?

It’s too cute to say that “Betty Ford was a feminist because she was a dancer.” But perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that a woman so conscious of freedom and movement, of breaking social boundaries and taking the stage herself, would be so forthright a figure in the public eye throughout her life. She took to the national stage as First Lady, enjoying approval ratings higher than her husband’s, embracing causes that would be impossible to imagine for a Republican First Lady today. This was fitting. Forty years earlier she had reached beyond the boundaries of Midwestern respectability to take the stage in Carnegie Hall. Perhaps it’s no wonder she then broke so many boundaries as First Lady.

Elizabeth “Betty” Bloomer was eight years old in 1926 when her mother enrolled her at the Calla Travis Dance Studio in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was an exciting time to learn dance. The 1920s were an age when dance performers and creators were mostly women, putting agency in female hands.[1] It was also when performers like Isadora Duncan were shattering the conventions of previous generations, and modern dancing was replacing European-style formalism. Even dance education itself was professionalizing – the first dance education major was established by Margaret H’Doubler in 1926.[2] That being said, the motives of the Bloomer family were down-to-earth. Hortense Bloomer (Betty’s mother) saw dance as a way to learn the refined manners that had been key in her own well-to-do upbringing.

The Callas Travis school offered “Spanish dancing, ballet, tap, acrobatic,” with a finale that required ballet. But Betty’s love was always modern dance – and her dream was New York City. “[Modern dance] was release,” she remembered forty years later, “it was the freedom to be able to express myself through my body.”[3] She had reason to want that freedom. Her father, as several of his children would become, was an alcoholic. He had failed at multiple jobs before settling near his wealthy in-laws in Grand Rapids, having slid down the ladder from a comfortable office job to working as a traveling salesman. The Bloomers may not have been poor, but they were never secure.

When the Depression hit, the Bloomers slipped even further down the social ladder. A teenaged Betty began teaching modern dance classes to local children to support her family and afford her own dance lessons. After her father’s mysterious death in 1934, the income from the still-teenage Bloomer’s dance instruction became even more important. Her mother, now the family’s sole breadwinner, helped her find work, as when she organized dance lessons at the Mary Free Bed Home for Crippled Children (now the Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital).[4]

In 1936, Betty, by then a graduate of both the Calla Travis Dance Studio and high school, persuaded her mother to let her attend the Bennington School of Dance in Vermont. Though it ran from only 1934 to 1942, Bennington was one of the leading centers of American dance education of the day. Instructors included Martha Graham, perhaps the most important American choreographer of the 20th century, who, decades later, would remember Betty Bloomer: “I remember her as I remember Bette Davis, standing out in the class.”

This photograph depicts Betty Bloomer Warren (center), the future Mrs. Gerald R. Ford, Jr. Betty is lying on the ground, with her gown spread out in a circle.
Betty Bloomer Warren, the future Mrs. Gerald R. Ford, Jr., dancing, c. 1945. (Courtesy National Archives)

After her time at Bennington, Betty won Graham’s permission to audition for her company in New York. At twenty years old, Bloomer made the auxiliary troupe, which still meant she performed. On October 9, 1938, Betty danced on-stage in Carnegie Hall in a performance titled “American Document,” a patriotic piece that pitted American mythology as a counter-narrative against fascist propaganda.[5]

The job, however, did not pay much, and family pressure brought her home to Grand Rapids. She worked in fashion for a local department store, but kept dancing – organizing a local dance troupe and resuming her work as a dance instructor. Then followed a period of little dancing: In 1942 she married William Warren, an alcoholic salesman like her late father, whose health collapsed in 1945 just as she filed for divorce. She spent two years living with her soon-to-be ex-in-laws while she helped nurse William back to health, then finalized the divorce in 1947, a few months after her introduction to WWII veteran and former model Gerald Ford.

The young Gerald Ford was an insurgent, an outsider running for Congress against long-serving incumbent Bartel Jonkman. In her new role as a potential partner of a rising political star, both Betty’s dancing career and her divorce were problematic. With the conservative voters of Grand Rapids in mind, Gerald and Betty waited until he’d triumphed in the 1948 Republican primary before they wed.

The next twenty-five years were complicated ones. The couple was young and attractive, faces the post-New Deal Republican Party wanted to put forward. Betty modeled for charity fashion shows and photographs and urged fellow Republican Congressional wives to do the same. She sent her daughter Susan to dance lessons – modern ones. At the same time, she struggled. Betty lived in an era awash with alcohol and a Washington, D.C. famous for its alcoholics. She was the daughter and sister of alcoholics; perhaps it is no surprise she became one too. This addiction would be complicated (after 1964) by a prescription pill addiction, and in 1965 by a nervous breakdown that led to weekly meetings with a psychiatrist.

In 1972, Gerald told Betty that he was going to retire from the House of Representatives after his term ended in 1974. But a year later, after an unprecedented scandal brought down Vice-President Agnew and President Nixon appointed Gerald Vice-President, Betty was Second Lady. And a year after that, after Watergate forced Nixon’s resignation, Betty Ford was the First Lady of the United States of America.

First Lady Betty Ford dancing with a young woman in a gym.
First Lady Betty Ford shares a dance move with one of the students while touring the Central May 7th College of Art in Peking, People’s Republic of China, December 3, 1975. (Courtesy National Archives)

Second Lady, and then First Lady, Betty Ford, took to the stage in ways unlike her predecessors. She was a champion of the arts and the disabled, an articulate advocate for women’s rights in issues ranging from abortion to the Equal Rights Amendment, a figure who deliberately hearkened back to Eleanor Roosevelt a generation before.

And she danced.

She did the Bump in the White House (raising the eyebrows of conservatives as much as her endorsement of Roe). She lobbied her husband to award a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Martha Graham. In 1975, she joined a Chinese dance troupe as they performed for the Fords in Beijing, earning more attention from the press than her husband did on that trip.[6] On August 11, 1976, she told a group of dancers at a Duke Ellington tribute that she still danced “when nobody’s looking.”[7]

The entanglement of dancing and feminism in Betty Ford’s life is a striking – and remarkable – one. The First Lady who happily danced for an audience as an elementary school student was the same First Lady who went public about her mastectomy. The First Lady who dreamed of the freedom of modern dance on stage in New York City was the first First Lady to embrace feminism and women’s equality. The First Lady who danced for Martha Graham on-stage in Carnegie Hall in 1938 was the first First Lady to dare tackle public taboos of addiction and abortion.

Dancing didn’t make her a feminist – that’s not how art works. But dancing did prepare her to take the stage. We should remember Betty Ford the dancer as much as we do the First Lady.


  1. Kelly Jean Lynch (2022). “Aesthetic dance as woman’s culture in America at the turn of the twentieth century: Genevieve Stebbins and the New York school of expression,” Feminist Modernist Studies, 5:3, 247-260.
  2. “Margaret H’Doubler,” Dance Magazine, April 1966, 33.
  3. Betty Ford, The Times of My Life (Harper Collins, 1978), 17-20.
  4. “Betty Ford Juvenile/Educational Biography :: First Ladies’ Library,” n.d. “Dance Played Important Part In Betty Ford’s Life,” St. Lucie News Tribune, March 4, 1979, 25; Lisa McCubbin, Betty Ford (New York: Gallery, 2018), 22-24.
  5. C. Lenart, “Dancing Barefoot and Politicizing Dance at the White House: Eleanor Roosevelt and Martha Graham’s Collaboration During the Rise of Fascism in Europe,” in Eleanor Roosevelt’s Views on Diplomacy and Democracy, ed. by D. Fazzi and A. Luscombe (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).
  6. Helen Thomas, “Betty Ford Kicks Up Heels in China,” The (Provo, UT) Daily Herald, December 4, 1975, p. 20.
  7. “At Duke Ellington Tribute, Betty Ford Gets In Step,” Long Beach Press-Telegram, August 11, 1976, p. 2.

Featured image: First Lady Betty Ford strikes a pose on the Cabinet table, January 19, 1977. (White House photo by David Hume Kennerly)

Dr. Mike Davis is an adjunct professor of history at Lees-McRae College, where he teaches American and Appalachian history. His current project is a history of Cold War technothrillers about World War III.

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