Valerie Elizabeth Bettis, modern dance and theatrical choreographer, daughter of Roy and Valerie (McCarthy) Bettis, was born on December 19, 1919, in Houston, Texas. She received training in ballet and Wigman modern dance technique during her youth in Houston. After attending the University of Texas for a year, she went to New York in 1937 to study with choreographer Hanya Holm. She performed with the Hanya Holm and Dance Group from 1937 to 1940. Beginning in 1941 she directed her own modern dance ensemble and performed in various theatrical productions. Her dance works emphasized character studies and often incorporated the spoken word. One of her best-known pieces, The Desperate Heart, was inspired by John Malcolm Brinnin's poem of the same title. In 1943 she married Bernardo Segall, her company's musical director.
Valerie Bettis often choreographed for companies other than her own. With Virginia Sampler, a dance she made for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1947, she became the first modern dancer to provide a work for a classical company. In 1952 she choreographed A Streetcar Named Desire, based on Tennessee Williams's play, for the Slavenska-Franklin Ballet. The American Ballet Theater acquired the piece two years later, and the Dance Theater of Harlem revived it in 1981.
Bettis taught on the faculty of the Connecticut College School of Dance and performed at the American Dance Festival in 1949, 1950, and 1954. During the 1950s she took on assignments in theater, film, and television. Theatrical director Lee Strasberg's 1951 presentation of Peer Gynt included choreography by Bettis, as did the Columbia Pictures films Affair in Trinidad (1952), Salome (1953), and Let's Do It Again (1953), all with Rita Hayworth. Bettis choreographed musical programs for NBC-TV and CBS-TV and had acting roles in several television dramas. In 1955 in New York she replaced Lotte Lenya in the lead role in Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera (New York). She and Segall were divorced that year.
Bettis married Arthur A. Schmidt in 1959, after which the pace of her career slowed. She started the Dance Studio Foundation in New York in 1964, "for dancers who act and actors who dance." In 1969 the studio produced a new performance group, the Valerie Bettis Theater/Dance Company, which continued presenting her works into the mid-1970s. Arthur Schmidt died in 1969. The National Endowment for the Arts awarded Bettis a fellowship to adapt for dance W. H. Hudson's novel Green Mansions; she was preparing the work for the Omega Liturgical Dance Company when she died in New York on September 26, 1982. Her remains were cremated there.