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Ida Arbeit

David Brewster, Star Tribune

Ida Arbeit dies at 101, dancing to the end

  • Article by: WARREN WOLFE
  • Star Tribune
  • March 18, 2011 - 8:50 AM

She lied about being poor so she could join a government modern dance troupe during the Depression, spent 12 years with a modern dance pioneer in New York City, and after a 68-year hiatus joined an intergenerational dance group in Minneapolis at age 99.

Ida Arbeit, 101, died Tuesday at her home in St. Paul, eight days after a public television crew filmed her for a "Minnesota Original" program.

"Ida was really up for that session, but I could tell she wasn't quite herself," said Maria Genné, founder of Kairos Dance Theatre, who danced with Arbeit that day. "She didn't make the cameramen blush."

Born Dec. 7, 1909, to Russian immigrants in New York City, Arbeit passed up dancing with Martha Graham ("too austere, too much angst") to become the first student of Helen Tamiris in 1928. Tamiris used jazz, Negro spirituals and other aspects of American life to explore urban and social issues.

"I was something," Arbeit said during a 2009 interview before her debut with Kairos. "I still am something! I've just got a little less of it, is all."

During the Depression, Tamiris formed the Federal Dance Theatre Project under the Works Progress Administration. "All the dancers wanted to join. But you had to be poor," Arbeit recalled. So she moved from her mother's apartment in Brooklyn into a mission for destitute women. "I wanted to dance, so I lied."

To help make ends meet, she also gave dance lessons, once filling in for a colleague at an adult club nearby in New Jersey -- a very adult club, she discovered, for nudists.

"I was not going to sit naked on the ground all weekend," she said. "So I folded up my dress and sat on that."

In 1941, Arbeit stopped dancing to get married, raise two children and teach music to kindergartners. Her son, David, persuaded her to move from Long Island to St. Paul in 2008.

Her last public performance with Kairos was in December, when she danced to the music of St. Paul tenor sax player Irv Williams, 91.

But she danced once again on video the day before she died in a program Genné presented at a National Endowment for the Arts program in Washington, D.C.

Arbeit was preceded in death by her husband, George, and daughter, Ruthanne. She is survived by her son David of St. Paul. A celebration of her life will be held at the Wellington Assisted Living in St. Paul, where she lived, from 2 to 4 p.m. March 26. The program will include videos of Arbeit and a performance by Kairos Dance Theatre.

Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253

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