When Langley choreographer and dance teacher Daunne Bacon Zinger herniated two of the discs of her spine, doctors told her she would likely never dance again. But Bacon Zinger heeded the words of her idol, jazz dance icon Luigi Faccuito; she never stopped moving.
With the help of physical therapy, steroid injections and Faccuito’s signature rehabilitative dance routine, Bacon Zinger regained her strength. Eventually, she was able to discard her wheelchair and return to the studio.
Bacon Zinger recently returned from a week-long workshop at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., where she co-taught Luigi’s dance routine to a group of actors and fellow dancers. The workshop was part of the preparation process for an upcoming musical entitled “Never Stop Moving: Luigi’s Legacy.” The play pays homage to the life and legacy of jazz-dance innovator Eugene “Luigi” Faccuito and is expected to debut at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in December.
Bacon Zinger, who earned a later-in-life bachelor of arts degree in dance from the University of Washington in 2011, said she is overjoyed to have been invited to take part in the creative process of producing the honorary musical.
Karen Setlowe, playwright, has been researching, writing and developing the story for the past seven years. Setlowe invited Bacon Zinger to attend the workshop after meeting her at an annual summer course at Faccuito’s famed dance studio in New York City.
“This workshop was a life-changing experience,” Bacon Zinger said, in a press release. “To share a dance technique that I have embodied since the 1970s, and to share Luigi’s dance wisdom with musicians, actors and playwrights in a retreat-like environment went well beyond my expectations.”
Bacon Zinger began dancing ballet at age 8; but four years later was told her ankles were not strong enough to withstand the physical demands of pointe shoes.
Somewhat hesitantly, Bacon Zinger took up jazz dance, which she came to enjoy thoroughly. She first learned of Faccuito while pursuing a minor in dance at college in the 1970s. The dancer, choreographer and teacher was at the height of his career at the time.
“I liked the fluidity, the grace, the fact that it was based in ballet which I was familiar with,” she said, adding that the ease of Faccuito’s technique on the body was an added benefit which she appreciated all the more as she grew older.
The technique, she recalled, was simple to learn yet challenging to master.
The “Luigi method” became the world’s first formal jazz technique, according to offjazz.com.
The first of the method’s tenets, explained Bacon Zinger, is to “never stop moving.” Faccuito, himself a dancer since childhood, moved from Ohio to Hollywood at age 21. He embodied and developed his signature method after a car wreck left one side of his body paralyzed and his eyes permanently crossed.
Though doctors said he would never dance again, Faccuito rehabilitated himself through the art form he so loved.
His method, Bacon Zinger said, is unique in its rehabilitative qualities. It strengthens the body without wearing it down, making it a dance form accessible to every body and ability.
Positions like the “locked fourth,” designed to protect dancer’s knees, and the concept of putting “the good side into the bad side,” are distinct Faccuito moves.
After regaining his strength — though he was still partially paralyzed for life — he resumed his professional dance career. A talent agent for Gene Kelly discovered him, granting him a gig as a chorus dancer in a film with Kelly. Faccuito quickly became well-known as a teacher, dancer and choreographer in Hollywood and New York City. Throughout his career he choreographed and danced in dozens of shows and taught numerous celebrities including Goldie Hahn, Ben Vereen, Madonna, Bette Midler, John Travolta, Liza Minelli and Betty White.
“Luigi always defined jazz dancing for me,” Travolta once remarked.
In addition to Luigi’s title as “the father of American jazz dancing,” he became recognized for his encouraging, patient teaching style and his method’s rehabilitative properties. Students possessing various skill levels and challenges have used the Luigi method to regain agility.
“That’s one of the reasons I was enamored with the technique,” said Bacon Zinger. “You can do the exercises whether you’re a stroke victim, whether you’re in a wheelchair, whether you are Barbra Streisand or Liza Minelli or an up-and-coming Broadway performer, or just a normal person who loves to teach dance on Whidbey Island.”
Bacon Zinger first taught Luigi’s jazz dance after college, but said she decided to put her dreams on hold due to financial struggles. She obtained her master’s degree in public administration and became a construction manager before retiring in 2006 and returning to school to pursue her passion.
In the summer of 2008, she attended Luigi’s dance workshop in New York City, co-taught by studio director Francis Roach, for the first time.
“The workshop changed my life,” said Bacon Zinger. “The fact that I could continue that technique at that time, at my age… and enjoy dance again, was a real revelation.”
Bacon Zinger recalled that her “heart was shaking” prior to meeting her idol in person for the first time.
“It was like meeting a rock star,” she said with a grin. After introducing herself, she recalled that Faccuito kissed her hand and welcomed her to his studio.
Bacon Zinger has attended the workshop every summer since, other than in 2010 when she faced her spinal injury. When she returned in summer 2011, she said, she was thrilled to be able to attend every one of the workshop classes without experiencing pain.
Although Faccuito is approaching his 90th birthday, he still attends classes to offer words of encouragement and new choreography. Teaching duties have been taken up by others, primarily Roach.
In 2012, Bacon Zinger began teaching Saturday morning classes at Sojourn Studios, where she continues to instruct students in her mentor’s technique and philosophy.
“When I can see that they’ve done a movement that brings them joy, I’ve done my mission. That comes from my experience with Luigi. He taught me to be a better teacher.”
In addition to her classes, Bacon Zinger has incorporated Luigi’s style into her choreography in shows such as the upcoming Whidbey Playhouse Theater production of “Spamalot.”
“I can’t think of too many better feelings than to empower other people to feel the joy of dance,” said Bacon Zinger.