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Pasadena dance teacher still cutting the rug at 86

'Social dancing is the best exercise there is. You exercise your entire body,' says Gene DeWald, a ballroom instructor who was first bitten by the dance bug at age 15.

November 06, 2011|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • Gene DeWald dances with Noelle North at his Pasadena studio.
Gene DeWald dances with Noelle North at his Pasadena studio. (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

For seven decades Gene DeWald has waltzed through his daily workout without breaking a sweat.

And tangoed, sambaed and cha-cha-chaed.

"I don't sweat because I float across the floor — I don't move my body like a lot of people do," he explained.

DeWald, 86, is a professional ballroom dance instructor with the nimbleness of someone half his age.

"People seeing me dance don't believe it when I tell them how old I am. Sometimes I have to show them my driver's license," he said.

He spends a half-hour or so every day dancing — either in a ballroom or room to room in his Pasadena bungalow.

"Social dancing is the best exercise there is. You exercise your entire body. You also exercise your mind concentrating on the steps and socially interacting with other people," DeWald said.

Unlike other workouts, social dancing doesn't run the risk of damaging hips and knees, straining the back or injuring feet, he said.

The dance bug bit DeWald when he was 15 and attending an all-boys high school in Chicago.

"Every Friday night we had a dance, and girls from all over Chicago would show up," he said. The girls quickly noticed DeWald's smooth dance floor moves. So did the boys.

They asked him to teach them how to dance. "That's what started my career," he said.

He met the woman he would marry at a dance, naturally. He and Milli DeWald won the professional division of Chicago's Harvest Moon Ball dance competition in front of a crowd of 22,500 in 1950. A U.S. Army representative in the audience quickly hired the pair to entertain troops stationed in Morocco, Tunisia and Libya.

Back home, "snow and ice chased us out of Chicago," DeWald said, and the couple moved to Pasadena in 1952 and opened a dance studio. Soon they were conducting dance classes for area junior high schools and for city recreation programs in Pasadena and Glendale.

In the 1960s the pair staged Saturday night dances for teenagers at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. For 26 years they also taught at a San Gabriel ballroom.

"Dancing was on the rise with teenagers until the Beatles came and the flower children started going to San Francisco," DeWald said. "Guitars and drumming do not make soothing dancing music."

Dancing has made a comeback with television's "Dancing With the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance," although "they're selling sex and sensationalism and they play the worst music for dancing," he said.

Seizing on those shows' popularity, DeWald has produced dance instruction DVDs that he hopes will reintroduce dancing in public schools. So far no school systems have ordered them.

That's a shame, said Noelle North, a Tujunga actress and dance instructor who teaches social dancing at Pasadena City College and sometimes serves as DeWald's dance partner.

"It's a fun exercise that doesn't overtax you. You can do it longer than other forms of exercise without getting tired," said North, 62.

North said she first met DeWald as a 7-year-old when her parents were taking lessons from him. "We've never lost touch. He's a marvelous ballroom dancer who brings a lot of passion to any dance style," she said.

These days DeWald gives private lessons at his Lake Avenue home beneath a large oil painting of him dancing a waltz with Milli, who died last year. It was painted in 1960 by an appreciative student, Opal Ratclif.

A half-century later DeWald can still do the same tango steps that won the couple Chicago's applause in 1950.

"When I turn 100 I'll still be dancing, and dancing the way I do now," he said.

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