Shirley Ubell, modern dancer, dancer therapist and longtime founder and artistic director of the nonprofit Center for Modern Dance Education (CMDE) in Hackensack, New Jersey, died April 11 in Lafayette, Calif., At the age 93. Over five decades at CMDE, she has created and nurtured innovative programs based on her belief that the joy and benefits of dance should be available to everyone, whether they are aspiring professionals or amateurs, young or old, able or disabled. – and regardless of their ability to Pay.
Shirley Leitman was born on March 26, 1928 in New York City. She received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Hunter College and a master’s degree in movement therapy. In 1949, she married Earl Ubell, science and medical reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, WCBS-TV, and Parade magazine. He predeceased her in 2007. She is survived by one daughter, Lori, one son Michael, three grandsons and seven great grandchildren, as well as her brother David and Allan.
Shirley was a late arrival to dance and began her studies with Maya Kyla, followed by training at the Martha Graham School, the New Dance Group and with Mary Anthony, with whom she also performed.
What Shirley began in 1951 with a handful of neighborhood kids in her suburban basement has grown into a beloved community resource, serving hundreds of children and adults in Hackensack, and in programs of outreach across Bergen County, including year-round programs for at-risk youth. CMDE has received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Puffin Foundation, the Bergen County Dept of Human Services, and private donors.
Some prominent figures in the dance community who have served as guest instructors or performed under the patronage of CMDE include Miriam Cole of the Martha Graham Company, Mary Anthony, Irving Burton, The Merry-Go-Rounders, Claire Porter, Jose Limon ‘, Ann Vachon, Doris Rudko, Rennie Harris PureMovement, Heidi Latskey Company. Shirley and her husband Earl Ubell were the first to introduce modern dance to NJ audiences, including performances by the companies Jose Limon, Eleo Pomare, Kathryn Posin, Doris Humphrey and Alvin Ailey. They also supported the use of Labanotation, a written method of scoring dance works, and taught it in school.
Other CMDE alumni include Dian Dong, co-founder and associate director of HTChen & Dancers / Chen Dance Center, in New York; Josie Mosley, currently a faculty member at Portland Ballet; Javier Ubell, of the Hanover Staatsoper Dance company in Munich; Shirley Black-Brown who has danced with the Alvin Ailey Company, Eleo Pomare, and on Broadway; Linda Mensch, founder and director of Linda Mensch’s Moving Company; and Marya Warshaw Executive Founder / Artistic Director of BAX / Brooklyn Arts Exchange.
In her own choreography, Shirley has brought lyricism to the universal subjects of youth, love and motherhood. Showing a different side, a dazzling solo, “Frustration” vividly expressed what it was to be wife-mother-dancer-teacher. For many decades, she performed in chamber concerts in her studio, in Greenwich Village, and in concerts in New Jersey and elsewhere. She started giving what she thought were her last performances when she was 60, but continued until she was 80. At 74, she performed with other veteran dancers, including former company member Graham Stuart Hodes, in a sweet spoof commentary on Claire Porter’s aging, “It’s About Time.” In 2007, Shirley was featured in HT Chen’s “Apple Dreams” presented at the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center in New York. She performed at the CMDE’s 50th Anniversary Gala in 2012 and in the studio.
Of teaching, Shirley often said, “Every student is important. No two are alike. Like snowflakes, their souls twirl, dive and hover across the stage.