About 15 years ago, Hopkins Dance Center founder Leslie Daly was guest teaching at another studio. She had corrected a student’s form, calling it mediocre. The student retorted, “What if I’m OK with being mediocre?”
For Daly, that would never be an option.
“Who would ever be OK with being mediocre?” Daly vented to one of her teachers, Allison Doughty Marquesen. “I mean, what’s the point?”
Petite in build with an outsized personality, Daly was a formidable instructor who intimidated and inspired generations of dancers in the Twin Cities during her 35 years of teaching.
Leslie Jean Daly, of St. Louis Park, died Jan. 14 at age 71 after battling breast cancer for 18 years.
“She always used tough love,” said Mary Distel, who learned from Daly, taught with her for more than a decade, and now plans to take over the studio. “She always wanted you to be your best and be on top of your game with every single class you attended.”
Her rigorous training was not for the faint of heart.
Olivia Thornton, 18, studied with Daly for the past 15 years. She recalls Daly stopping a class in the middle of a dance to tell them their performance was “God-awful.” “She never sugarcoated it,” Thornton said.
Still, “everything she taught us in dance transferred outside the studio,” said Thornton. “She taught us how to behave, how to be polite, how to take corrections. She just made us all stronger.”
Daly, who was born in Chicago and raised in Mason City, Iowa, was drawn to dance from a young age. The nearest ballet classes, with a Russian couple, were 100 miles away in Ames, yet she had her mother take her once a week. There, she learned strict classical technique that valued precision as well as a deep respect for the instructor — qualities she’d pass on to her own students decades later.
Daly went on to study ballet in Chicago and New York, and to dance with small groups in Europe. But instead of pursuing a career as a performer, she returned to Mason City and opened her own studio.
“I asked her one time why she didn’t dance professionally,” her husband, Eugene Chase, recalled. “She said, ‘I was never good enough to be a lead dancer, but I can be the best dance teacher you ever saw.’ And she was.”
Daly followed Chase to Minneapolis in 1973, where he opened a bank. Daly put dance on hold and worked with her husband, ascending to vice president. In the early ’80s, she returned to her first passion and opened Hopkins Dance Center. She didn’t advertise, nor did she aspire to have the biggest studio in the Twin Cities.
“She was the best-kept secret in town,” Chase said.
But as she focused on tailoring her instruction to each student — whether they had a body built for ballet or basketball — word spread, and young dancers flocked to her.
Doughty Marquesen danced under Daly’s tutelage from the age of 7. When she was 13, her mother died of cancer, and the studio became a second home for her. “Leslie was a very integral female figure in my life,” Doughty Marquesen said.
Daly was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, and doctors told her she had less than a year to live. She fought it for 18 years. And after every radiation or chemotherapy treatment, she’d be back at the studio. During that time, she founded the Hopkins Youth Ballet, known for its productions of “The Nutcracker” each year.
Daly attended a performance only weeks before she died. Sitting in the back of the auditorium, Chase could hear her muttering corrections: “No, arm up, arm up.”
“She was sitting there all bundled up in her blankets in her wheelchair,” he said, “but she was teaching.”
Besides Chase, Daly is survived by son Jeffrey Chase, brother Robin Bennet, brother Todd Bennett and sister Cindi Heine.
A memorial service has been held.