A Tradition of Dance Runs Deep in the City’s Heart and Culture

Culture and Education
Published September 25, 1997

A Tradition of Dance Runs Deep in the City’s Heart and Culture

| Published September 25, 1997

Patrons dance in the aisles at the Paramount Theatre, when big bands performed there during the 1940s. The Newark Public Library

Webster defines dancing as 'a series of rhythmic and patterned bodily movements usually performed to music; or to move or seem to move up and down or about in a quick or lively manner.' Either of those descriptions could have been applied to one of Newark's favorite pastimes beginning as far back as the 1790s.

In the beginning, the old Puritans would not have allowed any of those frivolous pursuits. But with the close of the 18th century, and the exodus of French aristocrats and European culture from Paris during their revolution, a small Gallic community was established in Elizabeth and gradually spilled over into Newark. In 1794, a Mr. Dillion or Dillon 'presented his compliments to the ladies and gentlemen of Newark,' and opened a dancing class at Newark Academy where he taught 'Cotillions, the Almanda, Laures, Classets, the plain Minuet with a Paugrau Balance, Coupet, Paragrande and Minuet de la Cour, Gavot, Country dance, and the homepipe. All of which he will engage to teach in the newest and most fashionable mode.'

Just a few years later, in 1816, Mr. Sansey, Miss Crab and Mr. Charles Basham also offered dancing lessons at the school in Mr. Bennett's long room and at the Jersey Tavern, adjoining the First Presbyterian Church, for $10 per quarter. 'Gentlemen are reminded to kindly leave their boots at home.' Many who engaged in the dance in 19th-century Newark were not wealthy. On the contrary, hard-working immigrants filled the local tavern or saloons nightly. John T. Cunningham estimated that there were 114 to 122 saloons in 19th-century Newark, and that the majority were fitted with tables and chairs for social purposes other than just drinking. In fact, the saloon served as a bank, a post office and a social club, and was the stage for all sorts of activities, including gambling as well as dancing. While some of the dancing was base or illicit, it was more often a normal social outlet for the immigrant. It was, in fact, a place for the newly arrived Newarker, the foreigner, and worker to recall happy days of an earlier time in a far away place—a spot where they could dance the mazurka, polka or waltz, or just remember good times.

The well-to-do lived near Washington, Military or Lincoln parks, and took part in many parties held in their gaslight town houses. The Assembly Ball of the old Essex Club was a splendid event attended by the Bradleys, Giffords, Frelinghuysens, Symingtons, Ballantines and Clarks, and the young ladies of the upper crust were instructed in dance at Miss Frances Whitmore's Newark seminary or Miss Margaretta Craven's School (later the Prospect Hill Country Day School) while their escorts were still trained at Newark Academy.

The well-known African-American music and dance instructor, Peter O'Fake, and his brother, John, likewise instructed many of Newark's best families in the fine art of music appreciation and dance. One of America's most famous dancers was Ruth St. Denis, born here in 1881. While she grew up on a Somerville farm in the Watchung Mountains, her name has come to be associated with Newark. Born Ruth Denis, she added Saint for her professional career. She has been described as that of 'an obscure country girl who was transformed into one of the brightest luminaries of the dancing world—a story of native ability, patience and perseverance, disappointment and hardships and, at last, success and honor.' In 1902, her family moved to Brooklyn, where she became associated with David Belasco, a leading theatrical producer of the time. From there, world fame followed with her performances in Europe and the establishment in Hollywood.

Here at home, local recognition came to David Lippel as a result of his dance school. Austrian-born Lippel was European trained, a background he later shared with family and pupils alike. His first dance studio was located on the 'hill' (High Street/Martin Luther King Boulevard). Later he relocated to the Loew's Theatre building on Broad Street, where he conducted classes for the remainder of his life. Lippel's two daughters, Freda Lippel Fried and June Lippel Metsky, taught ballet, tap, jazz, exotic and ballroom dancing. His 'Kutie Kids, ' a dance troupe of 30 or so youngsters, always was included in the annual Christmas and Easter pageants. Infrequently, they also appeared at theater specials, such as visits from people like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. In 1957, Freda Lippel opened a West Orange studio on Pleasant Valley Way. Soon after, June Lippel began teaching classes at the New Dimension Learning Center, also of West Orange. A third generation, Dick Fried, was a special education teacher in Cedar Grove and taught dancing for both teens and adults.

1930s and 1940s

During the late 1930s and early 1940s, dance floors in Newark included the Terrace Ball Room at the old Mosque theater, both the Christian and Jewish Y’s, and the Griffith Auditorium. Also popular were numerous church social halls around the city. Jean-Rae Turner, co-author with Richard Koles of a recently published book about the city, recalls visits to the Terrace Ball Room, the Griffith Co. and a bar on Branford Place at Broad Street. The Terrace Ball Room was described as somewhat cavernous, with tables and chairs arranged around the room and a live orchestra that played sambas, tangos and fox trots. The Griffith ballroom was an elegant mirrored place with soft lights 'that made a party dress look special,' while the Branford Place bar provided more excitement with its 25-cent and 50-cent drinks. Over at the YMCA on Halsey Street, before its merger with the YWCA, Larry Decker called square dances. The throwing of a girls' shoe into the middle of the floor and its recovery by her date by the end of the evening added to the fun. Remember, a major war was in progress, and one could not afford to lose a shoe. Crowds of a hundred or more were normal for an evening's entertainment. Of course, everybody rode the trolley since war-time rations made driving a luxury not affordable. For the well-healed, Arthur Murray or the McRichards Dancing School was the place to learn the latest step. But most people learned how to dance from an older sister or brother or by referring to the dance diagrams in the latest women's magazine.

World War II

Bill Dane, Special Collections Librarian at the Newark Public Library, recalls the city in 1944. He had been sent to engineering school at the former Newark College of Engineering (New Jersey Institute of Technology), and while busy in class during the week, on weekends he and the rest of the Newark College of Engineering 'troops' would hang out at the various USO facilities at the train stations, scurrying off to Manhattan whenever the opportunity arose on Saturday night. Or they went to visit a number of Newark bars or taverns where they drank rum and coke and were serenaded by the latest Andrews Sisters records. To assist the lonely, the USO worked very hard to provide 'a decent place to dance, to have respectable girls to talk to, and to provide a clubroom in which to meet and make friends.' But when Monday morning rolled around, it was the serious business of training an army how to fight and win a war for America.' On V-E Day in May 1945, church bells and factory whistles echoed the President's proclamation that the war was finally over. As in the case of the First War, all of Broad and Market streets turned into a sea of dancing Newarkers. More than 25,000 gathered for the great occasion, and the Four Corners were filled with hugging, kissing and dancing with old and new friends alike.

Burlesque and strip dance

An interesting development occurred in 1955, when the City Council outlawed strip tease dancing by prohibiting female dancers from appearing in the nude. Performers were considered disorderly persons and spectators could be arrested for simply being in the audience. Longtime Newark Councilman Irvine Turner questioned the fact the city '… has had burlesque for 40 years, and where were all those people who now find burlesque a menace to society?' But the wall of righteous indignation was too high for even Turner to bridge. As a result, burlesque fell. On Feb. 7, 1957, Minsky's closed, followed by the Empire on the 14th, reducing the number of burlesque theaters in the nation from 11 to nine.


While ballet was not new to Newark—remember that the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo had been invited here by the Griffith Foundation—it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that a ballet company could claim a Newark home. One of these was the Garden State Ballet founded by Fred and Evelyn Danieli, who cultivated their brainchild into a polished dance company, bringing ballet to thousands of people each year. In the process, their dancers performed all over New Jersey. Started on a second floor above a Chinese restaurant, the academy moved to 11 Central Ave. and was later based at 45 Academy St., its present home. Funded by the Victoria Foundation, the Dodge Foundation and various federal agencies, the troupe of 20 dancers grew to more than 175, who came mostly from Newark. It came as no surprise that the troupe supplied dancers for major dance groups, not only in Newark but to an even larger New York City area, thus helping to fulfill the company's goal of 'providing our students with a high level of dance training at no compromise, while being attentive to the individual needs of each student.' In 1979, Alfred Gallman formed the Gallman Newark Dance Theatre as an offshoot of the Garden State Ballet '… to give young minority dancers opportunities they lack in the dance world at large.' Gallman, a dancer, choreographer, teacher and director, early on established a partnership with Essex County College, where the group found a home in residence. Courses included traditional ballet, jazz and modern dance … 'taught in the black tradition.' Beginning in 1989, the College's Mary B. Burch Auditorium was its headquarters.

Like Ruth St. Denis of yesterday, Savion Glover now is one of those bright dance stars the whole world recognizes. Born in Newark in 1973, his considerable talent was recognized at the age of 2. By his 16th birthday, he already had appeared on Broadway and debuted at the Apollo Theatre. Later, he appeared with Gregory Hines in the smash hit 'Jelly's Last Jam.' By combining his abilities as a dancer, choreographer and teacher, the Arts High graduate has risen to the top of the profession. Part of Glover's success has been based upon the merging of tap and African-American dance. Many also will recognize him for shaping 'Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk,' and for his appearances on PBS's 'Sesame Street.' Today, he lives in Upper Montclair. Although he possesses many talents, tap dancing is his first and major love.

Figuratively, and literally, the dance tradition does not stand still. Some of the world's greatest troupes will be coming back or appearing here for the first time after the opening of The New Jersey Performing Arts Center. A glance at the inaugural season program for 1997-98 shows a wide range of performers: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the American Ballet Theatre, African-American Women Dance Pioneers, the Bale Foldorico da Bahia, the Ballet Gulbenkian, the Balletto Di Toscana, the Batsheva Dance Company, the Georgian State Dance Company, The Harlem Nutcracker, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, the Stars of the Kirov, Tango x e, Urban Bush Women and A Salute to Israel's 50th Anniversary. From 18th-century French emigre dance instructors to a salute to a half-century of Israel, Newark's dance card is indeed full.