Marge Champion, the legendary dancer and actress from the Golden Age of Hollywood, died on Wednesday at the age of 101.
Champion’s death was confirmed to the New York Times by her son, Gregg Champion, who said that she had been living with him for the past six months due to COVID-19.
Born in 1919 in Los Angeles to a celebrity dance coach, Champion began dancing when she was 3 years-old and grew up performing at the Hollywood Bowl. As a teenager, she modeled for three Disney animated features, including as the title character in the 1937 classic movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Champion’s own career did not really take off until 1947, when she became partners with childhood friend Gower Champion both personally and professionally. Over the next few years, the Champions became the first dance partnership to achieve national fame through the medium of television.
The couple captivated audiences all over the country because of their all-American good looks and incredible dance moves.
“All of the Champions’ dances have one thing in common — they try to tell a story or present an idea,” Arthur Altschul once wrote in The New York Times. “One may be a dramatic night dance, another satirizes dance’s three famous D’s — De Marco, de Mille and Draper; still a third accentuates the problems of practicing steps in a congested rehearsal studio.”
The Champions spent years starring in movies, television shows, and on Broadway. However, their professional partnership ended in 1960, and they divorced in 1973 after having two sons together. While he would go on to become to become an award-winning Broadway director, she became an Emmy Award-winning choreographer who worked on many projects over the ensuing decades. Despite their divorce, friends say that the Champions remained “soul mates” until Gower’s death in 1980 from a rare blood disorder.
This would prove to be the beginning of a difficult decade for Champion. In 1981, her next and final husband, film and television director Boris Segal, died in a helicopter accident. Six years later, her son Blake died in a car crash at the age of just 25.
Depressed by these tragedies, Champion poured herself into her work, continuing to perform, teach, and choreograph. She spent years serving as a member of the Tony Awards nominating committee, and took small roles in both television and film.
“Her last Broadway appearance was at 82 years of age in Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Follies,’ where she danced with her partner Donald Saddler, doing eight performances a week for six months,” her son Gregg said, referring to her 2001 Broadway appearance.
“She continued dancing as she aged into her 100th year,” Gregg said, adding that his mother often said “that ‘one should celebrate every decade for what it gives you and not for what it takes away.’”
Champion was inducted in the National Museum of Dance’s Hall of Fame in 2009, and she received the Douglas Watt Lifetime Achievement Award at the Fred and Adele Astaire Awards ceremonies in New York in 2013.
In 1999, dancing stars from many different dance companies gathered at the opening of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts to pay tribute to Champion. There, at nearly 80 years of age, she told the crowd of dancers, “I just want to say: It does get better!”