Marge Champion — a dancer and actor, choreographer and actress who played an integral role in the legendary Dizzy Gillespie’s quintet — died Oct. 14 in New York City. She was 101.
The cause was complications from a stroke, said her daughter, Dorothy Free. Ms. Champion and her late husband, Henry Allen Champion, were longtime residents of South Street Seaport.
On her website, Dizzy Gillespie said that Ms. Champion “was such a constant presence during rehearsals” in the band’s early years. “She knew every note by heart,” he said.
But it was not Ms. Champion’s voice that had people once talking. For her quintet, she commissioned renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin to play the ghostly crescendo motif from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” As a stand-in for the actor and singer Robert Goulet, she did the accent on the ditty “Carol of the Bells.”
Ms. Champion was born Marge Glaser on Nov. 19, 1916, in New York City, to parents who both worked in the garment industry. Her father, Louis, was the young dancer’s sole piano accompanist, her mother, Jolen, played the piano. They both still played in the jazz band, which they ran after school, as did Ms. Champion.
Ms. Champion was raised in East Harlem, in a building her family rented. Her father became an artist — painting portraits of the famous and famous-like.
Ms. Champion began learning ballet at age 3, after the founder of Joffrey Ballet, Martha Graham, presented one of her troupe. Ms. Champion would later dance for Graham, John Cage and the avant-garde pianist Art Tatum.
After she graduated from the High School of Performing Arts in New York City, Ms. Champion and her father became art patrons. But she was a dancer first and a patron second. Her parents were not impressed when she first applied to a professional dance company as a teenager.
“They thought I was a little girl, too girlish to be a dancer,” she told the New York Times in 1964. “Well, it turns out that they were wrong.”
Ms. Champion danced with the American Ballet Theatre and other companies and companies throughout the world. She sang in nightclubs. She performed in smaller casts in musicals, sometimes playing opposite big stars.
She was not the type of dancer to win the Manhattan social scene with her feminine beauty and tight, flowing black dresses. But she caught the attention of dancers like Rubén Blades, as well as of greats like Bela Bartok and Lorin Maazel.
She was teaching dance in Ukraine in 1965 when she met Allen Champion, a fellow teacher in her father’s company. They married in 1972. The three children they had together, Dorothy, Karen and Charles, preceded her in death.