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Corliss Whitney, former Rockette, dies at 83

In 1945, when she was 17, Corliss Whitney was hired as a Radio City Music Hall Rockette. She danced with the troupe for seven years - an era when shows were performed seven days a week, four or five times a day.

She left the stage after she got married in 1952 and, over the next four decades, raised a family and ran a market on Fire Island. She resumed dancing in the early 1990s and reached the finals of the Ms. New York Senior America Pageant.

In 1992 she formed the Seasoned Steppers, a dance troupe for women over 60 that performs at hospitals, schools and other venues. Whitney, who danced and choreographed the routines, ended each show with a full-drop split, which she mastered as a Rockette.

Seven years ago she had to stop dancing to undergo surgery to remove a brain cyst. Returning to the Steppers a few months later "was like a second life," she told Newsday last summer.

On Monday, Whitney died at NYU Medical Center in Manhattan. She was 83 and had been hospitalized since late November due to recurring brain seizures, her family said.

Her final performance with the Steppers was Nov. 7 at Monica Senior Village in Valley Stream. She had no plans to stop performing, said her son Scott Whitney. "No matter what life dealt her, she would find some way to be incredibly productive," he said.

Whitney was born Corliss Fyfe in 1927 in Providence, R.I., and raised in Hewlett. She graduated from Woodmere High School in 1945.

In 1952 she married Frank Whitney. The couple lived in Kew Gardens, Queens, before moving to Rockville Centre.

In 1980, she founded Corliss on the Bay, a general store in Fair Harbor, on Fire Island, which became part of Fire Island Markets Inc., a family business run by her husband, Frank Whitney. In summers the couple lived in an apartment over the store.

Whitney was 3 when she began ballet lessons. As a teen, she appeared at Carnegie Hall performing the ballet "The Dying Swan," her family said.

Among the Seasoned Steppers, Whitney was known for her kindness and wry humor. She often repeated her famous line to her three sons: "I'll stop [dancing] when I get applause for putting my meatloaf in the oven."

Ethel Bennett, founder of Ms. New York Senior America who knew Whitney for 20 years, described her as an "unbelievable" dancer and choreographer and a tremendous role model for aging women.

Marianne Stahl, co-choreographer of the Seasoned Steppers, said Whitney exhibited a quiet yet forceful teaching style. "She had times when she'd be more easygoing, and other times, she'd be a little tough with them," she said.

"She gave me more confidence on the stage than I ever, ever dreamt," said Marleen Schuss, director of Ms. New York Senior America and an original Seasoned Stepper.

Whitney told Scott that her final wish was for him to polish the last two chapters of her memoir, "A Rockette to Remember." Scott, a filmmaker, said he aims to get it published and create a documentary of her years as a Rockette and Seasoned Stepper.

In addition to her husband and son, Whitney is survived by two more sons, Jeff and Chip Whitney, and six grandchildren.

Whitney asked that there be no funeral or memorial service because she had received enough accolades in her lifetime, her husband said. Instead, she told Scott she wanted friends to celebrate her life by making donations to their favorite charities and being kind to strangers.

"Most important to me is being nice to people you don't know; the world needs more of that," she e-mailed Scott. "Be nice to a stranger and whisper to yourself, 'Corliss, that one was for you.' "


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