TORRINGTON – Birthdays in the time of COVID-19 are drive-by affairs, and one of the longest such parades in town was the one marking the 100th birthday of Marjorie Dante on May 9.
More than 100 people drove by her house, parked on the street and sang “Happy Birthday” from outside 34 cars displaying signs saying, “Honk for Mrs. Dante” and “Happy Birthday Margie.”
Celebrated as the co-founder of the Torrington School of Ballet and a longtime volunteer for the Nutmeg Ballet, Marjorie Dante was a guiding force at both institutions for 47 years, retiring in 2017 at age 97. Those who know her say she did almost everything — taking attendance, fitting dance shoes, keeping the books, ordering supplies, keeping the studio clean and more.
“I’ve always called her the Mother of the Ballet,” said Peggy Hotchkiss, a Nutmeg board member and longtime friend of Marjorie’s daughter, Sharon Dante – Nutmeg’s founder and executive director.
As Sharon Dante puts it, it was her mom who advised her to open a dance studio in 1969. As Marjorie Dante recalls it, her daughter was looking for ways to put her extensive dance training and performance experience to new uses.
“Why don’t you try to give a few dance lessons?” Marjorie Dante said.
Thos ten words changed Torrington’s history. Sharon Dante opened Torrington School of Ballet in December 1969 in the Migeon Avenue studio, where she studied dance as a child with Yolan Szabo. She later moved to Water Street and finally to Main Street, where the Nutmeg Conservatory has become a landmark.
Would she have done it anyway?
“Of course she would have,” Marjorie Dante said in a phone interview. She’s a lifelong Torrington resident, born Marjorie Andreoli on May 9, 1920, in a house on East Main Street. “I never went much further than that,” she said with a chuckle.
But that’s just geography and modesty. “Though I didn’t travel, I was able to see the whole world come to Torrington over these last decades,” she said.
She married James “Jimmy” Dante, a locally renowned trumpet player and tap dancer, and they had two children, Sharon and Joseph. She has two grandchildren, Jessica and Greg; and two great-grandchildren, Briella and Gavin.
“The Andreoli family is huge,” Marjorie Dante said. “My brother Johnny had eight children, those children had 23 and the next generation had over 46. So I have tons of great-great nieces and nephews out there as well.”
For almost 20 years, Jimmy and Marjorie Dante ran a diaper cleaning service, closing it just when they noticed that disposable diapers were catching on in the mid-1960s. She then worked as a sales clerk at Howard’s.
But her tenure at TSOB and Nutmeg was her longest and most satisfying career.
“She was the first person I met when I started [as a student] at Nutmeg in 1975,” said Susan Szabo, who is now the children’s ballet mistress at Torrington School of Ballet, the feeder school for Nutmeg Ballet. “She was lovely, and she was in charge. She had a little corner office in the Migeon Avenue studio. She had ballet shoes and Pointe shoes all piled up, and that’s where the kids would go over and get fitted with their shoes. She was an expert shoe fitter,” she said.
When Nutmeg moved to Water Street, Marjorie continued making it run smoothly so her daughter and the other instructors could concentrate on the students, Szabo said. “She’d have her little dust cloth and she’d be going over all the windowsills. That place had to be spotless, and it was.”
As Barry Hughson, a Nutmeg graduate, always put it, “Mrs. Dante could spot a dust bunny from a mile away.”
Szabo would help out answering the phone. “Her husband, Jimmy would call, and he’d say, ‘Would you please tell my wife to come home?’ She never wanted to leave, never,” Szabo said.
Peggy Hotchkiss, a member of the Torrington chapter of UNICO International, a service organization honoring Italian heritage, recalls when UNICO awarded Marjorie Dante the honor of Torrington’s Italian Mayor for a Day on Columbus Day 2010, when Marjorie was 90.
“I just think that she is great, the most beautiful and amazing person. She knew every student’s name. When they came in, when those little children came in to the Torrington School of Ballet and she would call them by name and say hello, they would be so happy,” Hotchkiss said.
Donna Bonasera, owner of Connecticut Dance Theatre in Watertown and former associate director at Nutmeg in the early 1970s, often helped Marjorie Dante in between dance instruction. “When she would go to Florida, I would take over. That was part of my training,” she said.
Bonasera also traveled with Marjorie Dante to Nutmeg’s branch schools in Winsted, Goshen and Watertown, cleaning and making sure the schools had what they needed so that the teachers could just go in and do their thing.
“Businesswise, Mrs. Dante taught me everything. When Mrs. Dante went to Florida, Sharon and I had to send out bills. We never did that before. Mrs. Dante took care of everything,” Bonasera said.
Bonasera purchased the Nutmeg branch school in Watertown from Sharon Dante, after leaving Nutmeg in 1987. It was one of the schools she had helped Marjorie Dante keep clean, more than 20 years earlier. “I still have the broom, which Mrs. Dante gave me when I took over,” she said.
“I think what Mrs. Dante also gave me is a work ethic, problem solving, just not being afraid to work,” she said.
Jessica Dante Rich, Marjorie’s granddaughter, remembers working with her at Nutmeg after school when Jessica was a teenager. “She loved when I would come. A lot of time she was the only one in the office in the afternoon, and she would give me tasks to do. I would help send out mailers to students, marketing things. I would do whatever she told me to. I would clean. She ran the show,” Rich said.
Rich remembers many shopping trips with “Nonnie,” as she still calls her grandmother. “She would buy me clothes for Christmas or birthdays. That was our time. She’d pick me up, we would go out to eat, we would go shopping, we would try on clothes, buy clothes. Then when I got home I would have to do a fashion show for her,” she said.
Victoria Mazzarelli, Nutmeg’s Artistic Director and a former student, said, “Mrs. Dante was always looking out for us when she worked with us, always keeping us on our toes, so to speak. I remember getting my first pair of Pointe shoes from her, which she fitted to me personally. She is simply an amazing woman.”
“I don’t have a secret,” Marjorie Dante said, when asked how she lived to be 100. “I worked all my life. I was with (Sharon) all the time that she had it, and I worked until I was 97 years old.”
Asked if she has a favorite memory of a century of living, she took a breath and said, “All of it. I loved everything of it. And I want to thank everyone for celebrating with me. Next time, I hope you can all come in.”