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Dance scholarship brings legacy full circle

Debbie West and Virginia Chittum

Virginia Chittum taught thousands of children the value of education, discipline and an active lifestyle through her love of dance. One of those children – Debbie West – is now an adult continuing Chittum’s legacy and teachings through a scholarship fund at West Virginia University. 

Chittum was a Preston County native and graduated from Morgantown Business College before receiving professional dance training in New York City. Chittum started the Virginia School of Dance in Morgantown when she returned. 

“Virginia promoted a love of dance that was all-encompassing,” West said. “She knew that most of us wouldn’t grow up to be professional dancers, so she used dance as a tool to teach us life lessons that we would need in our personal and professional lives outside of dance, too.” 

Chittum also taught her dancers to give back. Whenever a community organization needed dancers for an event or fundraiser, Chittum would send her students, free of charge.

“Virginia was a real community advocate, and it was important to her that we give back with our talents and abilities,” West said. “We attended countless events throughout the area and everyone always loved Virginia’s dancers.” 

1954 dancers

The community loved the Virginia School of Dance so much that they would line up for recitals hours before the start time. 

“There was no online ticketing during those times, so you had to stand in line to get your ticket and then reserve the seat that you want,” West said. “The night before the dance recital rehearsal, community members would bring their lawn chairs and sit in line on High Street until the next day. It was really one big celebration, people looked forward to it every year.” 

Chittum passed away in 1998, but many of her students remain in contact. West, who taught at the Virginia School of Dance after graduating from WVU, spearheaded a reunion for the dancers in 2016 at the Metropolitan Theatre – the same venue in which Chittum held recitals.

“The reunion fell on the 70-year anniversary of Virginia’s first recital at the Met, so that was really special to us,” West said. “We all performed in recitals there, and we all have great memories there. It was moving to be back on that stage honoring Virginia.” 

Virginia School of Dance program

West wanted to do something more to honor Chittum, and a dance scholarship at WVU was the perfect solution.

“Education was extremely important to Virginia,” West said. “No matter what her dancers wanted to do in their lives, she always stressed receiving a proper education because you just never know how it could benefit you down the road.”

The Virginia Chittum Dance Scholarship was endowed in 2016 and is awarded by WVU’s Financial Aid Office to a dance major from Monongalia County. The first scholarship recipient is Lauren Starliper.

"I am very honored to receive the Virginia Chittum Dance Scholarship,” Starliper said. “Dance has always been a part of my life and it has made me into the person I am today. It has given me some of my best friends and the best memories in my life. I hope I can continue to share my love of dance with young kids like Virginia did for so many years here in Morgantown." 

Even in a town the size of Morgantown, it’s a small world. Starliper’s aunt, Trish Bolyard, was a dance student under West at Virginia’s School of Dance. Starliper now instructs West’s granddaughter at a local dance academy. 

Debbie West and Lauren Starliper

“It’s amazing to see Virginia’s love of dance come full-circle and continue on with the next generation,” West said. “When you make a difference in one person’s life, it will cause a ripple of difference. This scholarship, and the thousands of students Virginia had a profound impact on, are part of her ripple.”

 To make a donation to the Virginia Chittum Dance Scholarship Fund, visit: https://give.wvu.edu/theatre-and-dance.