“A community of support for all dancers entering — or continuing their creative years”

Dancers Over 40 ARTS Legacy

DO40 Arts Legacy Interview

Stephanie Eley | Judy Wong

Stephanie Eley

What inspired you to become a dancer?

I think it was more “who” than “what.” Growing up in Oklahoma in the 50’s-60’s and becoming a dancer wasn’t part of the vision my family supported. However, becoming a secretary, teacher, nurse was! I was a very active child, always moving, doing daring tricks, challenging my brothers to ‘leg wrestling’, etc. I think my mother just enrolled me in dance class to either calm me down or have someone else figure out the problem with Stephanie! My ballet teacher, Margo Crowdus, was a master teacher of Cecchetti technique, understood my “problem,” plus I loved it and her, the movement, the music, the slippers, the quiet, the ballet skirt, the beauty, the safety, the love. Then, those fabulous movie musicals. The “who’” is the same list we all probably loved: Ginger, Cyd, Fred, Gene, Anne, Vera Ellen, Donald, Eleanor, etc.

By the time I turned 15 and a junior in high school, a career in dance was still off the table so I was madly thinking of what I could be when I grew up. I loved being outside, digging in the dirt, digging for truth, so with the encouragement from one of my teachers, I applied for a summer study abroad program from Loyola University (Chicago) and got a sociology scholarship to study for 3 weeks in Rome, 3 weeks in Paris and 3 weeks in London.

Once in London, the opportunity to see shows opened. I’d never seen a musical and had no idea what to expect. After seeing Hair and Man of La Mancha I was astounded! I got up the nerve to see my idol, Ginger Rogers, in Mame at the Drury Lane. Being a total innocent, I told the usher I wanted to meet her and asked where that would be. Rolling her eyes, she said the stage door. I found my way to that stage door, wading through the heavy rain. Actors were coming out and the people were wanting their autographs. I only wanted Miss Roger’s and I was freezing, very wet and my playbill which improvised as an umbrella was now useless. 

Gradually, all the people left with no Miss Rogers appearing. I started plotting that perhaps there was another stage door, but suddenly the door opened and there she was. I started blabbering in one huge run on sentence, “Hello, Miss Rogers, oh my gosh, Miss Rogers, my name is Stephanie Eley, Miss Rogers, and I’m from Tulsa, Oklahoma and I want to be a dancer but Miss Rogers my mom won’t let me be a dancer she says I have to be a schoolteacher or secretary I love everything you’ve ever done Miss Rogers my favorite… etc.” She stopped me, asked the stage door guy to get me inside, towel me off, get me some hot tea, warm me up and sit me in her dressing room! I found myself sitting there, shivering, partly due to being cold to the bone, partly the nerves of sitting in Miss Rogers dressing room! 

She came in and wanted to know why a 15-year-old little girl, from Oklahoma was standing in the rain, alone. I told her my situation. She listened and asked the stage door guy to get a souvenir program, signed the front and said, “If you want to dance, do it! Then you’ll be the last one standing.” I had no idea what that meant, I just knew I received permission from Miss Rogers to be a dancer! When I got back home, I dropped all activities and placed 100% of my energy into ballet.

Stephanie and DO40 president John Sefakis at the
November 15, 2021 Tommy Tune event at the
Actors Temple Theater, NYC

Who were the most influential in your career? 

I’d have to say the first was Michael Kidd. He gave me my first AEA job. I had been dancing in Vegas for Ron Lewis and Jerry Jackson but was new to LA. I was hired as a swing and during the rehearsal process was upgraded. He gave me a character, speaking part and I had to sing. I’d never sung in a show and was mildly terrified, but that innocent go-for-it mentality took over. Then, Michael Bennett. Without a doubt. Loved him! And Tommy Tune was so supportive, patient and wonderful. 


Victoria Palace, 1978, London

What were your most memorable dance performances? 

During the Vegas years, a show produced by the Tropicana opened at the Victoria Palace in London. It ran for 18 months, and I was the lead adagio dancer with Carl Wallace as my partner. I loved living in London, performing with Carl, doing overhead lifts on a raked stage and that wonderful Jerry Jackson choreo-graphy! Also, a few years later, while performing as Maggie in ACL in San Francisco, we were the chosen company to perform “One” from ACL on the TV special, Baryshnikov on Broadway with Liza. He was just fabulous! Roy Smith the dance captain taught him the number. Misha was so nervous and kept rehearsing it until we taped. He didn’t want to stand out, to honor the intention of being and dancing as “one.” Striking memory! 

What was the most frightening or funny story? 

I was in the original cast of My One and Only and was the Edyth Herbert understudy after Nana Visitor left. I had all my performance shoes, they were broken in, had just learned the choreography, blocking, my vocals were cleaned up with Jack Lee, our conductor and, suddenly, Twiggy was out due to a personal tragedy. After the matinee, I was told I was on for the evening performance. Luckily, I didn’t need any wigs as my hair was cut for the period and I fit into all of Twig’s costumes. I’d never danced it with another u/s, nor had a put in rehearsal, nor any quick-change rehearsals. So, I asked everyone to gently move me or adjust, if needed. I, honestly, didn’t have time to get nervous as I needed to just focus. Right before going on, standing in the wings, it hit me, and I drifted into a dream state… Once a scene was over, I changed in the wings. I just stood, with my arms out and they did their magic while I did a brain scan of the next number. All was going swimmingly! The closing number to Act 1 was the fabulously wonderful splash dance, to “S’WonderfuI.” I remember when the curtain came down after Act 1, I turned to exit and breath and found the cast giving a silent applause. Act 1 ended and Otts Munderloh, our genius sound man, came screaming into the dressing room. I’ve got to check your mic! Something’s wrong with your mic! So, I stood for him to check the battery pack, wires, etc. I asked him what was wrong, and he said he had to turn my mic off because there were horrible static, scratchy and muffled sounds. When I was singing, he’d turn up Tune’s mic to catch my voice, then when Tune sang, turned it back down. Back in those old days, the mic was velcroed to the costume at the breastbone area, not conveniently located in your hair line. Movement was slightly restricted as you had to keep your head and shoulders as one unit to be close to the mic… Otts was looking for my mic and found it was stuck to my tights at my inner thigh! Holy cow! Ha ha! That was the scratching, static, muffled sound he needed to get rid of. From that moment on, I checked my own mic! Years later, I saw Tune in Palm Springs where I was living, and he would visit and sometimes perform. I told him that story and asked him if he remembered it. Otts never told him and neither had I, so it was new news to him. He said, as only Tune could reply, “Well, Steph, at least you didn’t fart!” HAHA 

A short side note: I was on for Twig frequently and one night was asked to Tune’s dressing room after the show. This was a very strange request, so I headed there, and he said someone wanted to meet me. Again, this was a very strange thing. Usually, they’d be at the stage door, not in Tune’s dressing room. The door opened and in came Ginger Rogers! I immediately regressed to that innocent 15-year-old, wet, shivering young girl from Oklahoma and launched into the same patter from 20 years earlier. Funny thing, she REMEMBERED that. She didn’t remember my name; she wanted to meet the understudy and congratulate her on a great job. I reminded her of that conversation at the Drury Lane Theatre in London, in the 60’s and how it turned my life around. She was so proud and wanted me to repeat it to her escort who was then invited to join us in Tune’s room. Tune’s jaw was on the floor and then he just smiled, shook his head and said, “Well, how about that?” 

What experience or legacy would you like to pass on? 

Some dancers have the gift or luxury or whatever to stay in the business. Some pass on their knowledge and teach. I found myself in a situation where I had to dance with my brain rather than my feet. A god-sent organization, Career Transition for Dancers, introduced the path that allowed me to provide for my beautiful children, still create and share the knowledge I’d accrued. The counseling and confidence building sessions with the ever-lovely Susie Jary, led to creating my successful company, PACT – Partnering Artists Children Teachers, a K-12, city-wide arts education organization which partnered with NYC Department of Education, designing programs that integrated dance, theatre, music and visual arts into the core curriculum. Even though the footlights were far behind me, I found the light in children’s eyes, the light in teachers’ days when the kids ‘got it’ and the light in my heart to carry on and inspire a different audience. Diversify as much as possible, keep that dancer integrity, stride for perfection and enjoy the rebound!  


Judy Wong

What inspired you to become a dancer?

Now that is an interesting question...I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a dancer! The first time I was ever on a stage as a dancer was when I was 2 (almost 3) years old at Carnegie Hall. My brother used to say I only would walk on my toes since I learned to walk. I continued to dance on a stage every year from then until I was 17, when I took a two year hiatus. I was on pointe when I was 6 and since I didn’t look my age (people thought I was three), I began working in film, commercials and TV as an actress, singer & dancer. However, dancing was always my first passion. I lived my life as a dancer, only thinking of my dancing. My whole life, until I was 17, revolved around taking care of my legs as if my life depended on it...and it did. My parents were not involved in the theater, but I had many managers and agents. My mother was a visual artist and my dad was an average worker who had an amazing singing voice. Being a multi-generation New Yorker, I grew up with my dad’s obsession with the theater. I took a hiatus when I was 17 because, though for a number of years I danced with a dance troupe that entertained at dinner shows and events, I realized, for the first time that I was never going to be allowed to work full-time as an adult dancer...like a Rockette or a Copacabana dancer...I was way too short. But after two years, I realized how much I missed my life as a performer and dancer, and I came back to New York. Because of my height, I continued to work as a 13 year old until my 30’s and continued to work in commercials, film, TV and off Broadway; and as a chorus dancer and dance teacher while concentrating on my 3-1/2 octave voice.

My brother and I both came out of Mannes College of Music Prep, so I truly was a triple threat back then. I guess the ones who inspired me to keep dancing, no matter what, were my dance teachers, first managers, and really my other moms...the Clark Sisters, Rose & Mary. Of course, my obsession with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly contributed, the former whom I met finally on a movie set and the later whom I sadly never got to meet. 

Who were the most influential people in your career?

I would have to say Bob Audy. He was the one who kicked my butt back into shape after my two year hiatus and taught me to not allow my rather short size to keep me from what was most important to me...dancing...to keep finding ways to keep dancing. So, even when I took my second hiatus, at around 40, from my career to have a family, I kept dancing and taught my sons (against their dad’s wishes) to tap dance (and a pinch of ballet thrown in). I later taught in my son’s school tap dance to children. 

What were your most memorable dance performances? 

I don’t know if it was my greatest, but definitely my most memorable, when I got hired as a dancer in the movie “Fame.” You see I was accepted then promptly rejected in the final audition for the real HS of Performing Arts, dance dept. They told me (after the audition) how much they liked my performance, but they found out I was actually a professional dancer. Unbeknownst to me they did not accept who was a professional back then. 

My other memorable moment was getting to dance in All that Jazz and work with Bob Fosse...mostly because it reminded me of why I came back to New York. 

What was the most frightening or funny story? 

The first time I went on stage my dad was with me backstage. The stage manager yelled, “bring in the Siamese children!” My dad yelled back at him: ”she’s Chinese not Siamese!” What did he know! 

The most frightening was when I first got my contact lenses. I have terrible vision and wear glasses, but I never worked with my glasses. I never understood why I never got stage fright until the first time I had to go on stage with my contact lenses. For the first time, I saw people out there! I was terrified! 

What experience or legacy would you like to pass on? 

Once a dancer, always a dancer. As my momma Rose used to say, “Dancing is Good for You. It develops Poise and Confidence...for physical fitness. Dancing is the most pleasant form of exercise.” I grew up with old vaudevillians and old- time theater. I was taught to respect others as family no matter how big or supposedly small you think they may be. We are a theater family. We are blessed to have a gift and blessed to be able to work using that gift. When I was young, those outside the dance world used to say dancers are dumb. We are not dumb! We have strength and tenacity to keep moving forward no matter what! We have the intelligence to be organized (because god knows with all that training schedule and working schedule you have to be!) and the brains to learn and retain so much in a short time. We have the knowledge to take really good care of ourselves because our instrument is everything. We have the memory to remember all those steps for years to come! Always be proud to be a dancer! I am over 60 years down the road yet I will always say I am a dancer!  


Background Photo DO40 Cares 2012, By Jeff Eason, Wilsonmodels, Inc