Hollywood Stars Still Dancing at 86

Two days a week, at a dance studio on Broadway in Manhattan, N.Y., time stands still for two Hollywood stars: Marge Champion and Donald Saddler. Champion, 86, starred in many movies in the 1950s, including "Everything I Have Is Yours." Saddler, who will be 86 in January, is a celebrated choreographer who worked with Doris Day. For Champion and Saddler, dancing has been a lifelong passion.

"I think I started dancing when I was about 9," Saddler said.

After a bout of scarlet fever as a child, Saddler took dancing lessons to regain strength. He loved it right away and spent school vacations at MGM studios, dancing in the chorus of musicals, including 1937's "Rosalie."

Champion started her career much earlier.

"I have a picture of myself in a tutu when I was 9 months," she said. Between ages 14 to 16, Champion was the live-action model for Snow White for 1937's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." She worked two days each month and earned $10 a day. When she modeled for the hippo in "Fantasia," which was released in 1940, her salary increased to $25 a day.

In the 1950s, she became a household name as one-half of a famous dancing couple. She and her first husband, the late Gower Champion, were dubbed the next Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

"We did many supper clubs. We did many television shows," Champion said. "Then we were signed by MGM so we did 'Showboat,' 'Lovely to Look at.' 'Everything I Have is Yours' was our first sole starring film."

Saddler was an original member of the American Ballet Theatre -- which started in 1939 -- before heading overseas to serve in World War II.

"And then after that, I decided it was time for a change," he said. "I went into musicals. I was in 'High Button Shoes.'"

He later became a premier choreographer -- coaching Doris Day in "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," planning the dance numbers in "Wonderful Town," and more recently, choreographing Woody Allen's "Radio Days."

But when Champion and Saddler get together for their twice-weekly dance sessions, it's not about fame, cameras or packed houses anymore. They start each session with warm-up exercises and stretching. Champion said she stayed in shape by doing pilates regularly. Before long, they are gliding across the floor as they waltz to the music with their show-stopping moves.

"And every once in awhile, we'd say: 'That was a pretty good step. You should remember that,'" Saddler said.

"As long as it's not a knee drop or a huge thing over the head, we'll try it," Champion said.

"Ballroom dancing, the joy of it is your partner," Saddler said. "No matter what you do, she follows you, and you have the confidence to try anything."

Many of their music contemporaries may be gone, but each week Saddler and Champion take a dance through time.

"I feel like I'm dancing for them, for all my friends that I was in the ballet company with and all that," said Saddler, who is the only member of the original American Ballet Theatre who still performs. "I feel every time I dance, I'm really dancing for them, too."

"Gower would be very happy to see us dancing together," Champion said of her late husband.

Champion praised the younger generation of performers, but not the playwrights.

"I think the young people today on Broadway sing better, dance better and act better," she said. "They would have all been, a lot of them would have been, stars in the old days. They just don't write the shows for them anymore."

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