Pliés And Precision: The Chester Hale Story

"The possibilities of ice dancing haven't been scratched." - Chester Hale, "The Knickerbocker News", June 17, 1942

In July of 1977, Robert W. Larkin penned an absolutely fascinating piece for "The New York Times" entitled "Turning Ice Skates Into Dance Shoes". He traced the links between choreographers and figure skaters back to the thirties and forties, mentioning the impact of Harry Losée, John Butler, Terry Rudolph, Catherine Littlefield, Belita Jepson-Turner and countless others who had played integral roles in translating legitimate dance to the ice before John Curry and Twyla Tharp's famous collaboration. But a footnote in Mr. Larkin's piece was the name of a man whose impact on the figure skating world is truly immeasurable... and perhaps someone you've never heard of.

Chester Hale. Nickolas Muray photo courtesy Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library Collections.

The son of Wilbur and Laura (Moffett) Chamberlin, Chester Lord Chamberlin was born January 15, 1897 in Jersey City, New Jersey. His father, a respected reporter with the "New York Sun", passed away when he was only six years old. After his father's death, Chester, his mother and older sister moved in to the Montclair home of his uncle, who worked as a teller at a telephone company.

Chester, a dapper young man with dark brown hair and blue eyes, was sent to the Morgan Park Military School in Chicago, where his older brother worked as a journalist. He briefly studied medicine at the University Of Chicago. While visiting New York City, he saw Vaslav Nijinsky perform at a theatre and was instantly hooked on ballet. He quit school, began studying dance and took on the stage name Chester Hale. By the age of eighteen, he was dancing at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo alongside Nijinsky, making twenty-five dollars a week. He was reportedly the first American to join Sergei Diaghilev's company.

Chester Hale. Nickolas Muray photo courtesy Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library Collections.

From 1917 to 1920, Chester toured South America, Puerto Rico and Spain with Anna Pavlova, whom he'd met in Argentina. He managed to avoid being drafted during The Great War, claiming exception due to "American propaganda among Argentines". He was working as a physical director at a YMCA in Buenos Aires at the time.

Chester Hale. Nickolas Muray photos.

During the roaring twenties, Chester both performed and choreographed in a number of Broadway stage plays at the Capital and Roxy Theatres. He rubbed shoulders with a who's who of the acting world, including stars like Ruth Gordon and William Holden. He danced a duet with Rosa Rolanda in the Charles B. Cochran backed "Music Box Revue" and collaborated closely with choreographer Busby Berkeley, who later worked with Judy Garland, Carmen Miranda and Gene Kelly. Irene Castle hired him to stage her American vaudeville tour.

Chester Hale. Nickolas Muray photo courtesy Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library Collections

In his early thirties, Chester established The Chester Hale Schools in Manhattan and Long Island, which offered classes in ballet and tap. Dancers were scouted to perform in ballets he staged in nightclubs and theatres and sent as part of travelling troupes to Australia, Fiji, the Moulin Rouge in Paris and the Lido in Venice. He achieved considerable fame during Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration for his work as a choreographer in New York City. In 1934, Chester was hired by MGM and went to Hollywood to stage dance performances for several films, including "Here Comes The Band", "Naughty Marietta", "Rose Marie" and "Anna Karenina". He taught Greta Garbo how to dance the mazurka for the latter film. In 1938 and 1939, he produced an acclaimed dance productions staged at the Dallas Centennial and New York World's Fair.

After his eleven-year marriage to swimmer and dancer Amata Grassi had ended in divorce, Chester remarried to Helen Margaret Marine, twenty three years his junior, and settled on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Not long after, he choreographed a dance number for Lucille Ball in the RKO film "The Big Street".

During the forties and early fifties, Chester worked as the director and choreographer of the Ice Capades and Ice Cycles tours. With Rosemarie Stewart and Bob Dench as his assistants, he brought his 'go big or go home' approach to dance to the ice. He was responsible for creating the Ice Ca-pets and Ice Cadets and it was his vision for ensemble skating that shaped the tour's format - and precision synchro skating to a degree - for years to come. He wasn't exactly beloved by all. He could be intimidating but he got results. One dancer he worked with claimed he threatened to have her fingernails pulled out if she didn't dye her hair blonde. 

Nevertheless, Chester worked with a who's who of skating, including Megan and Phil Taylor, Belita Jepson-Turner, Donna Atwood and Bobby SpechtVěra Hrubá and Robin Lee and pushed the boundaries of skating and dance to new levels... despite having no real background in the sport himself.

Photo courtesy "The National Ice Skating Guide"

In the early fifties, he began working for Morris Chalfen as the choreographer for Holiday On Ice, travelling the world and putting together numbers for productions in exotic locales like Bogota, Colombia and Reykjavik, Iceland.

Chester and Helen Hale. Photo courtesy David Heeley.

Chester retired in Redondo Beach in the sixties. He passed away on August 13, 1984 at the age of eighty-seven, leaving behind a son and three grandchildren. Though he pushed professional figure skating to new heights, his impact on the sport has been largely forgotten.

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