Walter Schalk celebrates 60 years teaching dancing
Wilton resident Walter Schalk, 84, is proud to show there is still a bug in his rug.
“Yep, that’s the jitterbug,” Schalk said as he showed a visitor an iPhone video of costumed dancers performing a number from the World War II era. “That’s what we called it in the old days. Now we just call it swing dancing.”
The video Schalk is showing is from the 60th anniversary party thrown for his chain of Fairfield County dance studios, known as the Walter Schalk School of Dance. The gala was called Forever Dancing and was held at the Shore and Country Club in Norwalk. Alumni came from all over the country to share in the celebration with dinner and dancing. They surprised Schalk by dancing a number they had done in the past.
In Wilton, the academy rents space at the Comstock Community Center.
He’s been teaching Broadway theatrical dancing and ballroom dancing for 60 years — since the late 1950s, when he appeared on television shows that were the Eisenhower Era’s equivalent of Dancing With the Stars.
“I love to dance,” Schalk said.
But as a teacher, he’s demanding.
“I’m tough,” he said, only half-jokingly.
The students appreciate it though. Largely through word-of-mouth advertising, his schools fill up each September. His last group of students numbered nearly 700, paying nearly $700 each to study once a week for a season that stretches from September to spring.
“I cannot thank you enough for hosting your wonderful 60th anniversary party. What an accomplishment! What a party!” one former student, Kristyn Prial, said in a letter to Schalk. “Wow, I had so much fun and am still, today flying high from all the good will, fond memories, great conservations, lovely food and setting and all around fun. The only thing that hurts more than my knees and ankles from dancing is my stomach, from laughing.”
“I can honestly say it was such a wonderful evening celebrating you and how much the school means to all of us. I never sat down because every time I turned around I was seeing someone I danced with or instructed with in other towns. My cronies and I stayed out until 3 a.m. talking about all of our wonderful memories together. I think we would have been out until the sun came up if we didn’t get kicked out of the place,” former student Carol Dillingham Rowe wrote.
At the height of his success, the school had upwards of 2,400 students. Schalk estimated that 150,000 students from Fairfield and Westchester counties have passed through his school.
“Many have gone on to be in the Rockettes and dance on Broadway,” he said.
He is also proud that he puts on his own Rockettes-style Christmas show.
“The Radio City Music Hall show is expensive. We put on the same kind of show, for a lot less,” he said.
Schalk was the son of two hardworking German immigrants. His father was a skilled tool and die maker. Schalk began dance classes at the age of 5 under the tutelage of a World War II veteran who was partially crippled and passed on to his students the dream of being the next Fred Astaire.
Originally from Stamford, Schalk in 1950 was a finalist in the Harvest Moon Ball competition at Madison Square Garden and was soon performing on the Ed Sullivan TV show, Toast of the Town. He also appeared on the Fred Waring show and Frank Sinatra specials.
After serving as a soccer player in the U.S. Army during the 1950s in Germany, he began a second job choreographing Broadway and summer stock productions and teaching dance to friends.
His real career was letterpress printing.
“I was one of those letterpress etching guys,” he said, referring to how photographs were etched onto plates in the days of letterpress printing.
After moving to Wilton following the Korean War, Schalk was asked by friends in New Canaan to give their children dance lessons for a cotillion. His business grew from there.
He is proud his Holiday Spectacular and Spring Revenues give students more exposure on stage than other schools.
“You get to do four or five numbers,” he said. “There are schools where kids only get one number after a year of training.”
All the dances are done in costume.
“Years ago, women used to make them but I buy them now. We have tons of them,” he said.
The dancing and the exercise before class keeps him in shape.
“I’ve always been skinny,” he said. “Before class, we do a lot of stretching, you know, touching your toes, stretching your legs like a ballet dancer, that kind of thing. We always do the warmups.”