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Dancer, 76, Still Making It Look Easy : Teacher: Jon Zerby, who has performed around the world, remains in step with his students and his art.

May 27, 1991|STEVE PADILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A dozen ballet students looked on as dancing master Jon Zerby demonstrated the plie, gracefully bending the knees, his feet turned out, his head held high.

"That's all," he casually told the students. "See how easy it is?"

For nearly seven decades, Zerby has been making it look easy.

The great-grandson of a circus clown and the son of a vaudevillian hoofer, 76-year-old Zerby is still plying the trade he first learned in the family kitchen, where his father showed the young boy a few steps so he could join his parents for bows at the close of their act.

Those dance steps would eventually take him to Broadway, Paris, Copenhagen, and all over the world.

And, amazingly, he still dances like a man half his age. Trim and dapper with a neatly trimmed mustache and goatee, the Studio City resident performs occasionally but devotes most of his time to teaching--using a mix of enthusiasm and charm to drive, prod and coax his students, who range in age from 8 to 78. He teaches all styles of dance, from ballet to tango to ballroom.

"You know, kids, never worry about mistakes," he recently told a dozen ballet students as they took their positions along the practice barres. "We're going to do this thousands of times."

Indeed, he already has.

It all started, appropriately enough for a hoofer, on the road. His parents, Clyde and Mabel Zerby, were playing a small Texas boom town called Thurber when Zerby was born in 1914. "I was born in a town that doesn't exist anymore," he said. When he drove by the place years later, Zerby said, all he saw were abandoned buildings.

He was just a few years old when his parents started bringing him out on stage during their bows, a common vaudeville device that endeared them to the audience and "showed they were really family people," Zerby said.

Clyde Zerby was a talented dancer, his son recalls. His mother's main role was offstage, handling the books and publicity. Onstage, she wore skimpy outfits and handled Clyde Zerby's props. "She'd hand him his hat and cane, and they got paid as a team that way," Zerby said.

Soon, young Jon Zerby wanted to do more than just take bows.

"Once you hear that applause and all that love coming over the footlights, it's hard to resist," he said.

His delight in being onstage is captured in a sepia photograph, taken in 1927, of a round-faced, 13-year-old dancing Zerby decked out in natty tie and fedora. He holds a cane that his father rigged with a looped cord at one end so that Zerby wouldn't drop it during a performance.

"I still have that cane," Zerby said, gazing at the photo. It is mounted in his studio at Everywoman's Village, a nonprofit arts and education center in Van Nuys, where Zerby teaches about 20 classes a week.

Other photographs, mostly from the 1930s and '40s, spark memories as Zerby shows them to a visitor while students prepare for a morning class. "When I was young, I went to a different school every two weeks," Zerby said. When not on the road, the family lived in Houston, although there is only rarely any trace of Texas in his speech.

"You don't hear Texas unless he gets really angry," said Frank Calaba, a former student, now an attorney.

The most striking item on the studio wall is a large poster in soft pastels, showing a young and dashing Zerby with his first wife and dance partner, Inge Wiere. "That used to be me," he said, recalling earlier times.

People often mispronounced Inge, rhyming it with "hinge," so the Zerbys changed the spelling to Inga. That is the spelling that appears in reviews from the 1940s, also framed and mounted, which describe performances at some of the most famous theaters in the world, such as the Palace in New York and the Folies Bergere in Paris.

The Chicago Sun newspaper wrote: "Top billing we would give to the Zerbys, a boy and girl dance team who perform a striking routine with French flavor and then a conventional but graceful ballroom number."

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "The lady in the dance act of Jon and Inga Zerby is something to knock the eye out and send it rolling."

The gentleman in the act was not so bad himself. Another black and white photo shows Inga in a bikini-like outfit and Zerby in sparkly briefs. Lean and muscular, he lifts her high over his head.

"That was taken in Mexico City," he said. He turned to another photo, this one reminiscent of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. "That was the Palladium--beautiful theater." But after a stint in the Army during World War II--"I was a drill sergeant, which was right down my alley"--life wasn't the same for the dance partners. So in the late 1940s, after 10 years as a team onstage and off, they divorced.

Zerby raised their daughter, Derby Zerby, by himself while dancing onstage, in nightclubs and in a few movies. The name was his idea. "I just thought it would look good on a marquee," Zerby said.

Later, Derby got the acting bug too and changed her name to Kim Darby, still known to many movie-goers as John Wayne's teen-age sidekick in "True Grit."

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