Born in Inverness, Nova Scotia, White began taking dance lessons at the age of twelve, and eventually her studies took her to the San Francisco Ballet, where she danced in the first full-length U.S. production of The Nutcracker. Her first Broadway performance was in Finian's Rainbow in 1947. Her next assignment was Guys and Dolls, in which she both performed and assisted the choreographer, Michael Kidd, beginning an association that lasted through various productions until, in 1956, she choreographed her first Broadway show, Carmen Jones.
She married actor Larry Douglas in 1948; they divorced in 1959. they had two children: Jeanne and Stuart. She choreographed both the stage version and screen versions of The Music Man (1962), 1776 (1972) and Mame (1974). Douglas subsequently married Susan Luckey, who played the role of Zaneeta in the film of The Music Man.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted White an Academy Honorary Award for Oliver! (1968), one of the rare occasions that the Academy recognized choreography in film. Other recipients include Gene Kelly for "career achievements", Jerome Robbins for choreographic achievement on film", Michael Kidd (White's mentor) for "services to the art of dance in the art of the screen" and Stanley Donen for "body of work". Fred Astaire's was much earlier, and was for his body of work.