Deborah London Hoffman, a dancer, choreographer and teacher who taught Baltimore-area students for more than six decades, died Nov. 15 at the Inglehaven Assisted Living Center in Mount Horeb, Wis., of complications after a fall.
The former Owings Mills resident, who moved to Mount Horeb in 2005, was 96.
“Her students called her ‘Miss Debbie.’ She was a firm, strict teacher but was also very kind and never had the whip out,” said Karen Lynn Smith, a Chestertown resident who taught dance at Washington College for 45 years and was the founder of the Eastern Shore school’s dance program.
“We did an oral history with Debbie several years ago, and I remember her students saying and writing to her that the ‘skills and discipline you taught us were invaluable,’” said Ms. Smith.
The daughter of Myer London, a women’s clothing salesman, and Julia London, a piano teacher, Deborah London was born in Baltimore and raised in the 4100 block of Forest Park Ave.
Mrs. London was 5 years old when she began dancing in 1926 after her mother enrolled her in the Peabody Preparatory School to study Dalcroze Eurhythmics, a technique developed by Swiss educator and composer Emile Jacques-Dalcroze that teaches the concepts of rhythm, structure and musical expression through movement.
When she was a teenager, she began teaching dance in her home, with her mother providing piano accompaniment, and through the years studied with noted dancers in Baltimore and New York.
In 1939, she established the Deborah London School of Dance in Baltimore, which was one of the city’s first integrated dance schools.
“She taught ballet, musical theater, jazz as well as gymnastics and acrobatics,” Ms. Smith said.
“To be a dancer, you have to be a musician,too. As an actor, you have to study art history. There’s an intelligence to it — it goes together,” Mrs. Hoffman told The Evening Sun in a 1987 interview during which she described herself “as one of the grandes dames of dance in this city.”
Mrs. London, who was known professionally as Deborah London and “Miss Debbie” to her students, in studios, in kindergarten through 12th grade in public and private schools, and in higher education.
“Her influence on those she taught was profound,” her daughter, Lois Beth Hoffman oif Miami, wrote in a biographical profile of her mother. “Many became professional performing artists, dance educators, composers, artistic directors and producers; others developed successful careers in medicine, human services, education, law, and government.”
“I was 8 or 9 when I started studying with her in 1948,” said Anna Marie Moylan Pintavalle, who was in the original Broadway cast of “West Side Story,” and later danced in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “No Strings.”
“She had a studio on Charles Street, and my mother took me there. I didn’t want to go because I was very shy, but she met us at the door and she was so kind. And from that first day, I realized all I wanted to do was dance,” recalled Ms. Pintavalle, who lives in Red Hook, N.Y.
Mrs. Hoffman would take several students, including Ms. Pintavalle, and their mothers to the Dunham School on 43rd Street in New York City, which was founded by Katherine Dunham, a noted dancer and choreographer whose students had included actors James Dean and Marlon Brando.
“We stayed at the Taft Hotel and took classes all day. She’d take copious notes and then we returned to Baltimore, where we would practice what we had learned for the rest of the semester,” Ms. Pintavalle said.
“Debbie was a nurturing and sound educator. She’s been the same person throughout my life and the world of dance,” she said. “She had so much creativity and joy, and was the kind of teacher who championed what she saw in you and what she could bring out. And the mark of a great teacher is when they say they can do no more for you. This was Debbie, who was like a second mother to me.”
Some of her many illustrious students included Maxine Fox, producer of “Grease” and other Broadway musicals, and Tali Makell, conductor of of the New York Chamber Orchestra.
“Her love and passion for the arts, for children, and her ability to spot talent and to motivate was extraordinary,” said Harriet Lynn, formerly of Baltimore and now of Carmel, Calif.
Ms Lynn, an actress, dancer and director and former student who toured with national companies of “Hello, Dolly” with Ginger Rogers and Betty Grable, is the founder and artistic director of Heritage Theatre Artists’ Consortium.
“Debbie was always very supportive of anything you were doing,” Ms. Smith said. “She was a person who was willing to give a lot of time and was passionate about anything she was interested in. She was an extremely giving person and jumped in with all four feet.”
Mrs. Hoffman continued teaching until retiring at the age of 74 in 1995.