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Lee Kopman dies; king of modern square dancing was 85

Known as "one of the geniuses of square dancing and choreography," Kopman called dances on Long Island and around the world for more than five decades.

Lee Kopman calls a square dance at the

Lee Kopman calls a square dance at the John A. Anderson Recreation Center in Rockville Centre in 2015. Photo Credit: Jeremy Bales

Lee Kopman, an internationally renowned square dance caller from Wantagh, revolutionized the activity over five decades with his inventive choreography that challenged dancers with new, more complicated moves.

“All of the other square dance callers bow down to him,” said Dave Eno, 52, a caller from upstate Preble. “He’s had more influence on the way that square dancing is done today than anyone else.”

Kopman died Tuesday at his home from complications from bladder cancer, his daughter said. He was 85.

He is credited with inventing more than 500 square dancing moves, many of them by using checkers to experiment moving the dancers — sometimes on an airplane seat tray. He later graduated to a computer with the help of his son, Steven Kopman, 62, of Knoxville, Tennessee, who also became a square dance caller.

“We would discuss it at the dinner table, ‘What would be a good name for this, what would be a good name for that?’ ” said his wife, Lilith Kopman, 84, of Wantagh.

His fame grew to include television and media appearances, along with travel to teach and call dances at conventions worldwide. His fans lined up for his sessions wearing crown-shaped pins — he was known as the king of modern square dance — with “Lee” engraved inside.

“There isn’t a dance that you would go to where you wouldn’t use many of the calls that he created,” said his daughter, Phyllis Smith, 58, of Dallas.

To Dana Schirmer, executive director of the International Association of Square Dance Callers, Kopman was “one of the geniuses of square dancing and choreography.”

“It was kind of awe-inspiring,” Schirmer said. “There was nothing that held him back. … He knows how to challenge everybody with just the simplest calls.”

Kopman was born Aug. 9, 1933. His mother died when he was 14 and his father wanted him to follow in his footsteps to become a pharmacist. He settled on majoring in physical education at Adelphi University, where he took a square dancing class amid his time playing lacrosse and squash. He also met his wife there.

“When I married him, he was teaching the cha-cha in Cedarhurst,” she said. “Jewish girls don’t marry square dance callers. I read that once in a book.”

At first, Kopman taught physical education in the Bethpage school district. To make some extra money, he took up square dance calling, later selling tapes of his work.

“By day he would teach and by night he would call,” Smith said, noting that her mother would design matching outfits for the family. “On weekends he would travel and call.”

Kopman taught square dance calling at Nassau Community College and Adelphi University, and he regularly called for John A. Anderson Recreation Center in Rockville Centre over the last 50 years, most recently this summer before he was too sick to continue. The center dedicated a room, Kopman’s Square, to him this summer, Smith said.

Even as cancer ravaged his body, his family said, his biggest worry was “Will I be able to call?” He would say square dance calls in fever-induced hallucinations, like the ones he named “scoot back,” “motivate” and “chain reaction.”

“It was such a part of our lives, it wasn’t just an activity,” Lilith Kopman said.

In addition to his wife, daughter and son, survivors include three grandchildren.

"No matter what level of square dancing you do, it's a challenge for your mind," Lee Kopman said in a 2015 Newsday story. "Most people are so sedentary, they don't know what it is to think instantly and react physically."

In modern square dancing, "You have to think and move and listen at the same time. That's pretty hard to get people to do," he said, "but once they lock in the moves, they love it."

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