Sixty-two years and more than 162,000 students later, Walter Schalk has closed his dance school. But he isn’t hanging up his dance shoes quite yet.
The Walter Schalk School of Dance had its final Spring Revue March 29-31, when not only all the classes performed, but 60 alumni joined in as well, from ages 33 to 73, for a few numbers.
“If it wasn’t for them, quitting would have been hard on me,” Schalk told The Bulletin during an interview at his home office in Wilton. One of the alumni who joined in was Dick Tiani, a member of Schalk’s first class, the class of 1957. Tiani was 10 years old back then.
After just a few practices, they danced to Hello, Dolly, and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. “They brought the house down,” Schalk said.
The alumni’s performances fit into the final show that was themed Memories, and included clips from throughout Schalk’s professional dancing and teaching career.
Schalk caught the dancing bug when he was a fifth grader in Stamford, taking a ballroom class from a World War II veteran, who turned to teaching when injury ended his professional dancing career. Schalk and his friends stuck with him through high school as their teacher formed a dance company.
Schalk started entering competitions and was a finalist in the famed Harvest Moon Ball. He performed on television — the Ed Sullivan Show — and was in an opening act for big names like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.
Despite this success, Schalk kept his day job in advertising graphics and then military service intervened. On his return home from serving in post-World War II Germany, Schalk went back to dancing for pleasure and soon his friends took note. They asked him to teach them to dance, which he did. Then he taught their wives to dance and then their children. He had found his calling.
Schalk’s dance school empire began in 1957 with a group of fifth graders in Greenwich and like Topsy, just grew and grew.
“If you told me I was going to do this for a living…” Schalk said, shaking his head with a smile.
Those first classes focused on ballroom dancing and expanded from Greenwich to include New Canaan, Darien, Wilton, Ridgefield and Chappaqua, N.Y. Eventually, the nucleus of the school was in Wilton, New Canaan and Darien.
Ballet was taught briefly, and then what Schalk refers to as musical comedy, today called musical theater. As music changed, so did the curriculum.
“We had to change with the times,” he said. When hip-hop came out, Schalk embraced the music “but I made it more danceable … no dancing on your head.”
So, too, for disco, which he enjoyed and saw as “swing to a different beat.”
For decades, Schalk, now 86, taught all the dances and trained his most accomplished high schoolers as student-instructors. He also did all the choreography. It was only in the last 10 to 12 years he began bringing in teachers, all of whom were former students, he said, and getting help with choreography.
One of those instructors was Jim Lewicki, who started with Schalk in 1970. “Everybody did it then,” he told The Bulletin. “It was a rite of passage.” Lewicki taught at the school in the late 80s and 90s and has danced in the last 21 revues.
“Who Walter is now is the way he was back then, he’s a little more reserved now. He’s a larger-than-life figure when you’re a little kid,” he said.
At the height of Schalk’s success, there were as many as 2,000 students enrolled, most recently it was about half that.
“Dance schools are really hurting because of sports,” he said. Not that he has anything against sports — Schalk played baseball, hockey and soccer in high school — what he objects to are the all-consuming schedules.
“It’s changed the whole world of dance,” he said. “It would be nice if they put one a day a week aside for the arts — no sports.”
Lewicki, who is the boys soccer coach in Wilton, agreed.
“There were quite a few kids I coached in high school and seventh and eighth grade who did Walter Schalk. All those years, there weren’t outdoor sports like there are now. … I’d take them to class with me after practice.”
Schalk believes dance is beneficial for athletes. “Football coaches send their kids to do dance class so they know where their feet are,” he said.
“It’s all about timing,” he said. In sports, as in dance, “you have to anticipate. If you’re not anticipating a move, you’re a deadbeat.”
Friends of Schalk’s spoke of his passion for dance, when asked.
Ballroom teacher Nicola Engledew said, “His passion for the love of dance is unbelievable. He has taught so many people to love dance, he seems to pour his heart and soul into the lot.”
Bob VanDerhayden said he has known Schalk since he was a kid in New Canaan. “He came into school one day with a clipboard in his hand and dressed like Frank Sinatra.” Schalk told the kids they were going to put on a dance revue.
“He’s highly focused and loves to teach kids to dance, that’s his passion,” said VanDerhayden, whose wife Elaine was one of Schalk’s original class of 12 students.
“A lot of people don’t realize he not only taught them to dance but taught them important life lessons, like respect and discipline,” he said. “He sets a very high bar and expects you to reach it, but I’ve also seen him be generous to kids who aren’t great dancers but work hard and put them in the front row.”
VanDerhayden worked on scenery and lights for Schalk’s revues for 30 years and also acted as emcee for about 20 years, before Dan Taylor took over.
“Walter’s a very hard worker but fun to be with,” VanDerhayden said. “We had a lot of fights and arguments, but through all of that we are the best of friends. We both wanted to have a good show, and while we didn’t always agree, the conversations always led to a good show.”
“He’s also donated about three-quarters of a million dollars to a scholarship fund,” VanDerhayden said.
When asked if he has a favorite dance, Schalk says no, but it is clear his heart is in ballroom — the tango, the waltz. What drives him crazy is going to a wedding or other event and “everybody gets up and starts jumping around. Nobody ‘dances’ anymore,” he said.
Along with the fact 62 years is a long time to be doing anything, Schalk suffered a major loss when his cousin Charlie Micha died a year and a-half ago. “That was a big loss in my life,” he said, referring to Micha as his right hand. “He knew all about the business. It was very hard after that.”
Schalk said he is “very sad” to retire and would be happy to find a successor but none has come forward as of yet.
However, he found reuniting with his alumni invigorating and he is toying with the idea of starting a dance club. He is also planning to write a book. So don’t count Walter Schalk out just yet.