Mildred ‘Millie’ Cruzat dies at 94: renowned Chicago dancer, teacher who taught her students to always stand


Mildred “Millie” Cruzat was almost 50 when she received an invitation to join the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theater. She said yes and started touring with artists under half her age.

At 70, she signed a modeling contract.

At 91, she could still do the splits.

Ms. Cruzat believed in looking your best, doing your best, and stretching.

Until the end of her life, she danced in rooms and sometimes greeted people at the door with one leg stretched above her head.

Her family and friends gathered earlier this month for her funeral following Ms Cruzat’s death from heart failure in July at her Lake Meadows condo. She was 94 years old.

They remembered a chic, vivacious, anti-aging, majestic and charming woman.

Her friend Beatrice Wilkinson Welters, former U.S. Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago, recalls a trip to Jamaica, where they had a private audience with Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla Parker-Bowles.

“Millie stole the show,” Welters said. “She seemed to captivate the prince. They were laughing, joking and having the best time of their lives.

Millie Cruzat charmed Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla when she met them in Jamaica.
Provided

Her granddaughter Shanna Cruzat recalled a birthday dinner in her later years: “She’s at the restaurant and she has all the men on the floor – telling them they have to stretch.”

Art Norman, a friend and former WMAQ-TV presenter and reporter, described the lessons Ms. Cruzat instilled in the dance classes she taught. Norman said that when a student came in, “Millie said, ‘Young lady, come over here. You don’t walk like that. You observe your posture. Keep your head up because you are a proud black woman. And speak with authority. If you’re talking to someone, make eye contact with them. ”

Norman said: “She taught more than dance.”

She grew up in Detroit, daughter of Florence and Sevar Clemon. Her mother was a health enthusiast who exercised “and drank carrot juice very early on,” said Cruzat’s daughter, Liza Cruzat Brooks. His father operated a cleaner and a haberdashery.

During the Great Depression, she lived for a year with an aunt in Montgomery, Alabama. They resided on Cleveland Avenue, which had a bus route that rose to fame when civil rights icon Rosa Parks refused to give way to a white man, Ms Cruzat said in an interview with The HistoryMakers, “Most large African American video of the country oral history collection.

She graduated from Northeastern High School in Detroit and attended Highland Park Junior College in Michigan.

Millie Cruzat (right) posing with her sister Sevara.

Millie Cruzat (right) posing with her sister Sevara.
Provided

Young Millie took ballet lessons and was inspired by dancers Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Katherine Dunham, Martha Graham and Gene Kelly. She found a job at the post office, saved her money, and traveled to New York City in her twenties to study dance.

She was one of the first black women hired at Bloomingdale, according to her daughter Sevara Cruzat. Because she was fair skinned, her daughters said, people have sometimes asked Ms. Cruzat if she is “European” and have sometimes mistaken her for Osage Nation principal dancer Maria Tallchief.

She took dance lessons at Carnegie Hall. Photographer Gordon Parks lived around the corner and she watched tennis legend Althea Gibson play on a neighborhood court, she told The HistoryMakers.

Dancer Millie Cruzat (right) has performed in magazines.

Dancer Millie Cruzat (right) has performed in magazines.
Provided

Ms Cruzat danced in 1940s magazines and met up-and-coming actors like Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier.

In oral history, she said she saw performances by Count Basie, Sammy Davis Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald at a time when black performers often couldn’t enter through the front doors of the clubs where they performed.

After returning to the Midwest, she starred in a TV show in St. Louis hosted by the deejay Spider Burks.

Millie and Dr Edward

Millie and Dr. Edward “Teddy” Cruzat on their wedding day in 1954.
Provided

In 1954, she and Dr. Edward “Teddy” Cruzat married. They settled in Chicago, where they raised their daughters and a son, Edward. Cruzat, who died in 2000, admired his wife’s beautiful posture and said to the children: “Sit up straight like your mother.

During the 1970s, when she was almost 40, she joined Joseph Holmes’ troupe.

Millie Cruzat often danced alongside performers half her age when she danced in her forties with the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theater.

Millie Cruzat often danced alongside performers half her age when she danced in her forties with the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theater.
Provided

“She was touring a lot, at 45, with 20-year-olds,” said Lynna Hollis, artistic director of the Chicago Contemporary Dance Theater, a dance studio in Bridgeport where Ms. Cruzat taught from 2013 until her last days.

Ms. Cruzat once told the Chicago Tribune that after playing, “I went home and sat in the tub every night.”

Millie Cruzat teaches students at the Chicago Contemporary Dance Theater.

Millie Cruzat teaches students at the Chicago Contemporary Dance Theater.
Chicago Contemporary Dance Theater

In the 1980s, she operated her own fitness center.

She also started teaching at Beethoven Primary School, where Catrina Singletary, now 42, was one of her “Beethoven Ballerinas”.

“We lived in Robert Taylor Homes,” Singletary said. “We lived in the projects. His presence just demanded respect. She gave us these pep talk – what we can do, who we could be.

Ms. Cruzat worked to get scholarships for her ballerinas. Made sure they had toed shoes. Introduced them to tennis and gymnastics. Give them his famous gingerbread cookies.

On weekends, the girls would ask if they could come to her house.

“We were playing with her clothes, her makeup,” Singletary said. “She just made us feel so wanted.”

Ms Cruzat’s husband “just sat there and smiled,” Singletary said. “When I told him I wanted to be a nurse, he took me to the hospital” to be introduced to the nurses who worked there. “They told us we could be great. “

Singletary now works at Stroger Hospital and is in school to complete her nursing degree.

In the 1990s, Ms. Cruzat taught exercise classes in Lake Meadows.

She loved the frosted lipstick, Royal Secret scent, and simple sets like jeans with sky-high heels and a striking jewel.

She loved jogging and yoga.

She admired ballet stars Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev. Nureyev signed a program for her after a performance, and she always kept it.

Besides her three children and granddaughter Shanna, Ms Cruzat is survived by her granddaughters Aliya and Carley.

“I don’t just dance,” she once told WLS-TV’s “Windy City Live”. “I’m about to [students’] character, their attitude, them being special. You don’t have to be the brightest, and you don’t have to be what they call the most beautiful. You find something. I find something in every child I have. And then I make them even more special.

After all the classes she has taught, she said, “I have a lot of kids now. “

Millie Cruzat and her students at the Chicago Contemporary Dance Theater.

Millie Cruzat and her students at the Chicago Contemporary Dance Theater.
Chicago Contemporary Dance Theater


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