For generations, Jane Hart was one of Hartford's best-known dancers, a beautiful woman who exuded grace, glitter and glamour.
She grew up in the South End and began taking dancing lessons when she was about 8. She studied at the Florence Greenland Dance Studio and soon opened her own successful studio, where she taught until she had a stroke at 81.
Hart could perform nearly every style of dance: tap, ballet, ballroom, Latin American. She was a popular performer in Hartford-area nightclubs, restaurants, community auditoriums and VFWs.
The way most of Hartford got to know Hart, however, was through her dancing classes, where thousands of girls learned to dance over more than a half-century. Even men now in their 60s who never set foot in a dance studio still recognize her name.
Hart started giving dancing lessons to neighborhood girls in her basement when she was 10. They couldn't afford real classes, and she charged them a dime. By the time she was 15, she was staging recitals with her students and performing on her own.
When she was in her 20s, she bought a house on Broadview Terrace in Hartford and gave classes there as well as in several other locations. She also gave lessons in all 10 of Hartford's parks during the summer and taught for 50 years at Camp Courant.
While she was building a reputation as a teacher, she would perform in supper clubs and at the old Hartford Hilton. She opened for strippers and vaudeville and variety shows, either tap dancing, doing acrobatics, twirling a baton or ballet dancing.
One of her frequent partners was Bobby Dae, who danced with Hart for 14 years. They gave classes at the YMCA and performed together at convalescent homes and senior centers until the late 1980s. They incorporated the newer dances into their repertoire: disco, cha-cha, merengue, which Hart danced swathed in maribou furs, sequins and rhinestones. Although she used tapes and records, she also had a longtime pianist, Emma Griggs Giel.
"She was like an idol to me," said Dae. "She had a heart that was as big as the world."
Her students' yearly recitals were major productions. She often took over the 2,800-seat Bushnell Memorial in Hartford, accompanied by an orchestra.
Hart danced and taught into her early 80s and competed for the title of Ms. Senior Connecticut. "She never looked her age," Dae said. "If she was 75, she looked 30."
Hart, who died of natural causes, traveled regularly to New York during the summer to take classes in choreography, stocking up on ideas for the following year. The trips continued until she was into her 70s.
"Jane would always be on the floor [dancing]," said her goddaughter, Rene Joanis-Burke, "while the older ones took notes. She outdanced some of the young ones."
Hart was not only a successful businesswoman; she was also a generous performer who raised a lot of money for worthy causes. During World War II, she gave performances around the state and helped the war effort at bond rallies.
Later, she gave many benefit performances for the March of Dimes and other charities. For years she and her students helped the Insurance Clubs Entertainment Bureau, a group of volunteers who worked in insurance companies, to put on free performances around the state at hospitals, veterans homes and prisons. "You asked Jane to do it," said Bob Sandalo, who worked with the bureau, "Jane would help anyone."
There was a zany Auntie Mame quality to Hart. She had many pairs of horn-rimmed or rhinestone-decorated glasses and was never seen without a wild hairdo concocted in beehive style.
She favored leopard-skin pants and fuzzy coats, which she accessorized with light-up earrings. Another favorite outfit was tight leopard pants and orange high heels. "Everything was a costume," said Joanis-Burke. Despite Hart's wacky offstage demeanor, she neither drank nor smoked.
"She was eccentric in a good way," said Joanis-Burke, who used to travel with her mother, a former student of Hart's who became a dance partner, and with Hart. "She was wonderful," she said. On a trip to Italy, Hart danced barefoot in the fountains of Tivoli; "she didn't care what anyone else thought."
Hart never married and told friends she had been engaged but broke it off because her fiancÚ wouldn't let her continue dancing.
Hart commissioned plastic champagne glasses filled with a cardboard image of her stuck in the middle, and sent out Christmas cards of herself wearing crazy hats and outfits. Hartford parades found her riding in the back seat of a convertible and it seemed the whole town knew her.
"She was flamboyant," Sandalo said.
"She was like Ginger Rogers or Ann Miller in the movies," said Dae, her former partner. "She was the bubble in the champagne."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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