Sunday, November 15, 2009


Elaine as a baby with her mother Esther PARKER ROBB

First cousin of Kirt DeMar WOOD, Elaine ROBB SMITH (1911-2007) was the daughter of James ROBB (1874-1966) and Esther PARKER (1886-1975). In the summer 1986 I believe we saw Elaine tap dance at PARKER family reunion held in Farragut Idaho. I have one more photo of Elaine as a young dancer I will post when I find it.

Elaine ROBB pictured as a young dancer with her brother Parker ROBB

Elaine Robb Smith, 1911-2007: She taught her moves to generations of dancers


Even into her 90s, Elaine Smith could do a smooth time step, tapping her way down the hall of her adult-care facility using her walker.

Smith, who died April 7 at the age of 96, imparted her love of tap dancing to several generations of dancers and hundreds of students throughout the Seattle area, most recently to the seniors at Kent Senior Activity Center.

"She was a great teacher," said Lea Bishop, director of the center, who recalled her classes were popular and would have a dozen people at time. "The class would often go out and tap at nursing homes and retirement centers." She last taught there in 1998.
She made a few hearts skip a beat along the way as well.

Two of her students, who were in their 80s at the time, met in her senior tap class and wound up married, said her daughter, Diana Smith.

Dancing worked a similar magic throughout the elder Smith's life.
Born in Cedar City, Utah, in 1911, she was diagnosed as a child with a chronic cough from a congenital bronchial condition. Her doctors said no sports or strenuous activity, but she enrolled in ballet class against their advice. She fell in love with it.

Tap soon followed, and in 1931, she joined Dancing Masters of America, kicking up her heels doing vaudeville with such ensembles as the "Pepper Steppers" on the Pantages Circuit and with other shows.

It was true gypsy life. The performers would pack their gear in cars, with a bass strapped to the top of one of them, and caravan from city to city, Diana Smith said. For stage makeup, the women would tip their lashes with melted wax to plump them up before putting on mascara. For a girl who grew up in a Mormon family and had majored in "Home Arts" at the University of Utah, it was a great adventure.

She danced in Hollywood as well, working with choreographers for the likes of tap master Donald O'Connor, but never quite made it in the movies, her daughter said.

She eventually came to Seattle to join her brother, who worked at The Boeing Co., and during World War II, she also worked for Boeing, becoming one of the legions of women who became known as Rosie the Riveters. The aircraft maker quickly took note of her tiny dancer's physique and put her to work inspecting B-17s and B-29s.

She was small enough to climb inside the planes to check the rivets, her daughter said.
Also during that time, she was set up through her brother on a blind date with Army Air Corps Lt. Channing Lloyd Smith.

Channing Smith took her for dinner and dancing at the China Pheasant restaurant in Seattle, Diana Smith said. He got up to dance with her, and by the time they were through, well, "that was it."

"He was a very good dancer," their daughter said. They were married 54 years.
After her husband's retirement from Boeing, she "conned him" into learning to tap, and the couple loved to perform as part of a three-generation tap ensemble that included their daughter and granddaughter.

If they were going on a cruise, she would always pack the costumes, Diana Smith said. A trained seamstress, her mother made most of her own costumes, and when she wasn't on the road dancing, she earned money as a tailor, working for I. Magnin in Los Angeles and Seattle.

Still, aside from her family, dancing remained her biggest passion. Even after her eyesight faded from macular degeneration, she maintained her discipline of doing her "barre" exercises daily and working through a few "shuffle ball change" steps.

At her funeral, a half-dozen old friends and family members got up and did a lively shim sham in her honor.

"We don't do morose so well," Smith said. "Mom would have loved it."

No comments: