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Longtime Capital Region instructor danced ‘right up to the end’

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Longtime Capital Region instructor danced ‘right up to the end’

Irma Baker danced through the 98 years she spent on Earth.
Longtime Capital Region instructor danced ‘right up to the end’
Irma Baker, age 88 when this photos was taken in 2005, performs a split at the Baker School of Dance in the Glenridge Plaza in Glenville.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

Irma Baker danced through the 98 years she spent on Earth.

Born in Albany in 1917, Baker started teaching dance as a young teen and went on to open dance studios in Albany, Marathon, Auburn, Red Creek, Camillus, Seneca Falls, Clifton Park and Scotia.

The professional dancer and instructor who taught hundreds of students throughout her lifetime died last week.

Baker’s daughter, Denise, said her mother died peacefully in her sleep Nov. 9 at the Loving Home for Mom or Dad nursing home in Rexford, where she spent the last year of her life.

“She was dancing right up to the end,” Denise said. “She lived alone until age 97 and was still occasionally dancing in recitals and teaching adult dance classes. She was balancing and performing the five ballet positions on her walker, and could put her toe to her nose until the day she died. She had more energy than any of us.”

Denise, who began dance lessons with her mother as soon as she could walk, is the owner and an instructor at the Denise Baker School of Dance in Glenville.

Denise teaches ballet, jazz, tap and acrobatics at the local studio, which has been open 28 years, with her daughter, Kyle Henzler Hatfield.

“She was an unconventional woman for her time,” Hatfield, who is pregnant with her second child, said of her grandmother. “She was a brilliant woman, was so creative and had so many ideas. She felt dancing kept her young and gave her a long life, and I intend to pass it along to my children for the fourth generation.”

Through the decades, Denise watched generations of dancers glide in and out of her mother’s studio door — many of whom went on to be Tony Award winners, Rockettes, Broadway performers and dance studio directors.

In 1997, the Dance Masters of America Chapter No. 8 highlighted Baker’s many accomplishments in the dancing industry.

“My mother helped and touched so many people,” Denise said. “It’s not just about the people who went on to dance professionally, it’s about the people who became able to speak in front of crowds, have a passion to move their bodies or carry themselves with grace.”

Dozens of friends, family and former students attended Irma’s memorial service Sunday afternoon.

Denise said two of her mother’s former students spoke at the service.

“Dancing is something I love and always will love, and I have her to thank for that,” Kate Page Seaback, who studied dance with Irma Baker from age 5 through high school, said. “I feel she’s not just responsible for my success in dancing, but responsible for the success I had in anything I ever did.”

Seaback said when she got to college at the Rochester Institute of Technology to study to be a dentist, she started and led a school dance team and was nominated for a leadership scholarship.

“I had to nominate an inspirational teacher I’d had, and I nominated her,” Seaback, of Charlton, said. “The president of the university presented the award, and when they called her up with me, she did something in true Irma style. She stood up, did this graceful glide across the room, did a twirl, high kick, grabbed the president and did a spin with him, dipped herself and kissed him.

“She always looked like she was on the stage, whether she was or wasn’t,” she added with a laugh.

Whitney McIntosh, production director of the dance program at Long Island University and the creative arts director for a nonprofit dance studio in Brooklyn, said she smiles when she thinks of Irma and her “stick,” or her pointing tool she used to tap students’ feet during a lesson.

“Some thought it was a bit strict, but it toughened me up in a good way,” McIntosh said. “When I was studying dance in the city in college, I kept my composure because Mrs. Baker had taught me how. … She still cared even after we weren’t her students anymore. During my hardest times of adjustment in the city, she sent me a letter once a week, and sometimes she was the only thing that encouraged me to keep going.”

Seaback said that while Irma was an excellent dancer, she was an incredible teacher above anything else.

“She taught us how to live and laugh and get through things,” Seaback said. “She taught us to persevere, how to succeed and achieve goals far beyond dancing.”

Denise said her mother’s legacy continues to live, or dance, on.

“As I continue to teach and dance, I know she’s alive in me,” Denise said.

A previous version of this story misidentified Kate Page Seaback's career. She is a dentist.

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