Estelle Dennis, 87, founder of city's first Dance Theatre

December 15, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Estelle Dennis, who founded the first Dance Theatre in Baltimore in 1934 that was dedicated to the training and education of aspiring dancers, died Wednesday of a heart attack at St. Joseph's Medical Center.

She was 87 and lived near Cockeysville.

A dancer and choreographer who taught ballet and contemporary dance forms, Miss Dennis remained active at her 13 W. Mount Vernon Place Studio until 10 years ago. The Estelle Dennis Dance Theatre is now under the direction of a former student and partner, Louise Muse.

"She never lost her interest in dance and on her deathbed was saying, 'Don't close the curtain on my girls, and I'm ready. I'm ready,' " said Ms. Muse, who worked with Miss Dennis for more than 50 years.

Estelle Owen Dennis was born in Roland Park and began dancing as a child. She spent her high school years in Richmond, Va., where she graduated from St. Catherine's School and attended finishing school in New York.

After accepting a position as a dancer with the Metropolitan Opera Corps de Ballet -- she lied about her age to get in -- Miss Dennis received an anxious telegram from her parents demanding that she return home or lose her allowance.

She returned home long enough to take the money, which was to have been used for her coming out party as a debutante, then returned to New York on the next train and used the money for dance lessons.

In 1928, she joined Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn and danced for five years as a member of the famous Denishawn Dancers, a company that was in the forefront of the modern dance movement.

Miss Dennis resisted older academic forms and was greatly influenced by the music and Eastern forms, which she adapted and taught in her studio.

"There's always a tension between modern dance and ballet," zTC she said in a 1975 interview. "I am a dramatic dancer. I hoped to bring the two together into an American style; that was my dream. The thing I think is important is to lift people out of themselves into another world by setting a mood or saying something."

From 1934 to 1961, Miss Dennis performed with her dancers in a studio at 100 E. Monument St., until she was forced to move to Mount Vernon Place when the building was torn down.

"She knew all of the famous people in the ballet world -- George Balanchine, Antony Tudor, Alicia Markova, Margot Fonteyn -- and she brought them all to Baltimore," Ms. Muse said.

During World War II, Miss Dennis and her students performed more than 500 shows for the Red Cross at Fort Meade, Bainbridge Naval Training Center, Fort Holabird and Aberdeen Proving Ground.

In later years, they performed in Memorial Stadium, city schools and toured throughout the South, New Jersey, Philadelphia and New York.

"She was always very creative and had a deep, deep feeling for her work," Ms. Muse said.

She once said her favorite thing was dancing and teaching but it was also watching children develop.

"To see an awkward child gradually develop into a graceful person is a wonderful satisfaction," she said in a 1980 interview.

She was married in 1961 to H. Courtenay Jenifer, who survives her.

In 1980, she was recognized for her work by the Maryland Dance Council.

Services were held yesterday at Ruck Towson Funeral Home.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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