Dance Teacher Charles Kelley Leaves a Lasting Legacy With His Students

Former students of Kelley gather around a cardboard cutout made in his honor at the recent tribute. Photo courtesy of Merritt

Every dancer has a teacher who makes an impression. The kind of impression that makes you want to become a dancer or a teacher in the first place. For Mara Merritt, owner of Merritt Dance Center in Schenectady, NY, and countless others, that teacher was Charles Kelley.

Known as "Chuck" to most, Kelley was born December 4, 1936. He was a master teacher in tap, jazz and acrobatics, who wrote syllabuses for national dance conventions like Dance Educators of America. Growing up in upstate New York, Merritt's parents, both dance teachers, took her into Manhattan every Friday to study with Kelley. First at the old Ed Sullivan Theater and the New York Center of Dance in Times Square, then years later at Broadway Dance Center.

Dance Teacher magazine, formerly Dance Teacher Now: Kelley graced the March 1988 cover.

"He was a walking encyclopedia of dance," says Merritt. "Whether it was tap, ballet, jazz or acro, we did barre work. He was a very thorough teacher, and you don't find teachers out there like this anymore. He trained you for whatever would come your way (i.e. auditions, preventing injuries)."

In the early '90s, Charles Kelley (right) was honored, along with Bob Audy (left) and Luigi (center) at the Dance Masters of America in New York. Photo courtesy of Merritt

Diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2013, Kelley passed away in January of this year. Last week a group of his longtime students gathered in New York to celebrate, including organizer Mark Santoro, (who was unable to attend the event) a student of Kelley's who was in numerous Broadway shows like Show Boat, Cats, Gypsy and the national tour of A Chorus Line. The tribute was filled with laughter and tears and included a workshop at Ripley-Grier Studios that highlighted and celebrated Kelley's teaching style.

A tap class on Sunday in Kelley's honor. Photo courtesy of Merritt

"Whether it was dancing in Broadway shows, tours or teaching, we all felt like we owed our careers to this man. We are his legacy. We are teaching what he taught us," says Merritt. "He was a mentor to all of us. And now we realize what a gem he was to the dance world. He will always be in my classroom."

Merritt (right) with two of her students and Kelley in 2011. Photo courtesy of Merritt

Here are some of the heartfelt tributes made in his honor:

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