The Last Dance For Joanne Kahn

When Joanne Kahn’s parents took her to the New York City Ballet — she thinks it was “The Nutcracker” — she fell in love with the beauty and grace of dance.

“It was a chance to leave yourself behind, and reach another level of creativity we don’t usually tap into,” she recalls.

Joanne was all of 6 years old.

She started dance lessons soon after.  At New York’s High School of Performing Arts, she received more serious training.  She also studied at the School of American Ballet.

After Cornell University, Joanne helped write a show on the history of American musical theater for a cultural trip sponsored by the State Department.  She moved to Boston, where her husband was in law school, and earned a master’s in education.

Back in New York Joanne taught at Friends Seminary; moved to Paris for her husband’s job; had 2 children, and took more dance classes.

Joanne Kahn works with Clay Singer (Tony) and Michelle Pauker (Maria), in rehearsals for next month's Staples Players production of "West Side Story." (Photo by Kerry Long)

In 1975 the Kahns moved to Westport.  She got involved in the Westport Community Theatre; helped form Stageworks; choreographed for local schools — and in 1988 her son Jason’s friend John Morgan told her Staples Players needed a choreographer.

She introduced herself to director Al Pia, and offered to help.  “In his wonderful way he just said, ‘Welcome aboard!'” she recalls.

Their 1st collaboration was “Anything Goes.”  And — for the next 22 years — Joanne Kahn was Staples Players’ superb choreographer.

She continued after Al retired in 1996.  She worked with Judy Luster for 4 years; since then, she and David Roth have taken Players to even more spectacular dance heights.

Through “Cabaret,” “Runaways,” “A Chorus Line” — where she worked with Broadway dancer and Staples alum Bradley Jones to teach the original “phenomenal” choreography — and through “The Fantasticks,” “Tommy, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and nearly too many others to count — Joanne has turned talented high school actors and singers into tremendous dancers.

It hasn’t been easy — but Joanne has loved every minute of it.

Her role, she says, is “working with the director.  I try to translate the director’s thoughts and vision into movement and staging.”

In 2009 -- at Staples Players' 50th anniversary celebration -- Joanne Kahn danced in "One," the classic number from "A Chorus Line." (Photo by Kerry Long)

While most Staples Players are talented actors, and some have wonderful voices, few have dance backgrounds.  “I have to understand what they can and can’t do,” she says — while challenging them to do more than they ever have, or thought they could.

“My job is to make them look their best — and shine.”

Now she’s working on a phenomenal dance production — “West Side Story.”  It opens November 11.

When it closes the following weekend though, she won’t start thinking about the next show.  After more than 2 decades as Staples Playears choreographer, Joanne Kahn is hanging up her dance shoes.

Her husband retired.  They’ve been spending half the year in Sarasota.  Now they’ve sold their house here, so Joanne’s long Westport connection has ended.

She has “loved and cherished” her job.  “It’s been a privilege and a pleasure to have worked with Al, Judy and David,” Joanne says.  “They’ve sustained me, and enriched my life.”

The actors have also inspired her.  Staples Players is “a very dedicated group who understand theater can be ‘serious fun,'” she notes.

“That’s rare.  At other high schools kids enjoy putting on shows.  But they don’t regard it on a ‘professional level.’  Players is not just an after-school activity.  The kids love what they do, and they’re phenomenally dedicated.  That rubs off on all the rest of them on the ‘team.'”

Joanne Kahn confers with dance captain Alexa Babbin, and actors Max Stampa-Brown and Chris Nicoletti during rehearsals for the 2008 show, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." (Photo by Kerry Long)

Joanne loves working with high school students.  “They’re adults,” she says.  “You can talk to them.  They understand your sense of humor — and the nuances you seek in choreography.  They really get it.”

Leaving now, she admits, is “bittersweet.  The level of excellence is phenomenal.”

But if a choreographer is going to take a final bow, “West Side Story” is the place to do it.

“It’s a magnificent dance show,” she says.  “You don’t get much better than Jerome Robbins.  And I love the story and the music.

“The cast is incredible,” Joanne adds.  “The dance captains are magnificent.  The kids have learned the original choreography.

“This show is so moving to me.  The message is universal:  How do we resolve our differences and get along?  Getting that message across through dance and song is so important.”

And what is so important to Staples Players is that — for 22 years — Joanne Kahn has helped high school actors become confident, compelling dancers.  For over 2 decades, she’s helped thousands of teenagers deliver countless important messages.

Take that final bow, Joanne.   You deserve one more turn in the spotlight.

(“West Side Story” will be presented November 11, 12, 17, 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m., and November 13 at 2 p.m.  For more information, click here.)

12 responses to “The Last Dance For Joanne Kahn

  1. I think our little town is enriched mightily by your gifted reporting, Dan. There is so much I would be quite clueless about! Nice to hear about Joanne Kahn’s impressive career at Staples… I wondered why there seemed to be so many dancers!

  2. As a Lifelong Staples “Player” I am honored to know that the level of Excellence has NEVER stopped since graduating in 1988. It is amazing that so many of us our out in our chosen profession because of dedicated adults like Joanne. I knew Jason very well and he would sometimes see me flopping around the stage trying to dance! I earned the nickname “Flounder” because of it! Thanks to Joanne for all the hard work I know she did to help the Players stay excellent! Now back to ONE! Peace, Love, and The Staples Players!

  3. Another great article, Dan, and a fantastic tribute to one special woman! We will miss you, Jojo!

  4. As the parent of a former Player, I know that Joanne is not just an incredible choreographer but a superbly positive influence on all the young people who’ve had a chance to work with her. I can’t imagine anyone filling her tap shoes (or character shoes, or toe shoes) but wish Joanne and her husband the best as they begin a new adventure.

  5. Jojo is the greatest!! You will be missed! Thanks for everything!!

  6. We will miss you Joanne! Thank you for all of your hard work in helping our children to be the Best of the Best! Chris sends his love to you! Enjoy your new home!

  7. Remembering our first collaboration, “Runnaways”, I still marvel at how you support a director’s vision and choreograph the show rather than showcase your talents. You made me a better director and I am forever grateful for the times we shared on stage and in rehearsal. Not noted in Dan’s terrific article (thanks Dan) is JoJo’s contribution to the three Faculty Follies productions. She could even get teachers to move like they’d never moved before. Anthony, JoJo – embrace retirement and all it has to offer.

  8. Congratulations Joanne! Well done- way above and beyond the call of duty! Your ability to teach and set the bar high has proven over and over again, how high school students can reach unexpected heights if we let them.
    Enjoy retirement- the best is yet to come…

  9. Bradley Jones

    Thanks, Dan, for shining the spotlight on Joanne. I will join in Judy’s observation of Joanne’s great modesty; a humility that does not always allow for the rightful celebration of her glorious talent and great commitment to Players. Joanne not only possesses an innate ability to recreate historic choreography, she can also synthesize and adapt movement to the varying abilities of her dancers from year to year without losing (and sometime building on) on the essence of the original material. This is no easy task! I am forever wowed by Joanne’s talent, and am so deeply grateful to have worked with her. I have learned tremendously from our alliance throughout the years, and will miss her from the bottom of my heart.

  10. Gerry Kuroghlian

    Thanks Dan!. As a teacher at Staples I was constantly amazed by Joanne’s ability to instill grace into the size 12 shoes of some of my male students. She also taught the faculty to dance in order to put on Faculty Talent Shows, a far more difficult task than dealing with teens. Joanne is a shining example of a parent who cared for all children as well as her own. Her gifts to the Westport Community are deeply appreciated.

  11. Jim Honeycutt

    Congratulations to Joanne Kahn, whose contributions I come to know so well through my work with Players. There is nothing better than a Staples Players musical and the moment in show when the Pit kicks in and a song and dance number begins. In the last ten or twelve years that I have worked with Players I have come to love Joanne’s dance choreography. And yes, these are not high school productions!

  12. JoJo, you took me under you wing and challenged me as a person, Player, and dancer. Your constant care was a huge inspiration for me. Great article Dan, and JoJo you will be missed!