Marge Champion
Marge Champion Image Credit: Twitter

Marge Champion, a dancer who gave life to Snow White as a live-action model for Disney's 1937 animated film, and who later hoofed across the screen with Gower Champion in a reigning husband-and-wife duo at the heyday of Hollywood musicals and the dawn of television, died Oct. 21 in Los Angeles. She was 101.

Her son Gregg Champion confirmed her death but did not cite a specific cause.

The daughter of Ernest Belcher, a dance teacher known as the "ballet master to movieland," Champion was born into the thriving center of American show business and remained there, through marriage and by force of her talent, for decades.

As a young assistant to her father, she gave dance lessons to a student eight years her junior, Shirley Temple. "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," Disney's first full-length animated feature, was released the year Champion turned 18 and introduced her graceful motion - although not her name in the uncredited role - to millions.

Fame arrived in the late 1940s, when she and Gower Champion began a professional dance partnership that continued through the next decade and a marriage that lasted until the early 1970s. He was handsome and clean-cut. She was girlish and effervescent. Together, they were adoring and adorable.

In television appearances and a slew of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie musicals including "Show Boat" (1951), they produced a chemistry that recalled for many viewers, if only distantly, the earlier performances of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

"Because they are married, they form a union in both their performances and in their dancing that suggests to the viewer honesty and truth," film historian Jeanine Basinger said of the Champions. "A married couple knows each other's moves. When they are actually then skilled and attractive dancers, those moves become art."

Gower Champion became the Tony Award-winning director and choreographer of Broadway musicals including "Bye Bye Birdie," "Carnival!" and "Hello, Dolly!" But on film, Basinger said, Champion "was what made them successful . . . He was a good choreographer, but she had the personality."

Champion learned much of her technique from her father, whose dance students, besides Temple, included Broadway musical star Gwen Verdon and ballet star Maria Tallchief.

Another pupil was Gower, Marge's junior high school classmate. They wed in 1947, performed at supper clubs and, within a few years, appeared on television programs such as "The Admiral Broadway Revue" with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca.

In 1953, on Ed Sullivan's program, the Champions performed several dance vignettes, each recounting a story. In one, a couple indulges in the delights of an abandoned carnival. Another sketch recounted a romantic reconciliation after a feud.

Reviewing the bravura performance, John Crosby, the television and radio critic with the New York Herald Tribune, wrote that the Champions were as "light as bubbles, wildly imaginative in choreography, and infinitely meticulous in execution. Above all, they are exuberantly young." He declared them "the best dance team of its kind in the world."

The Champions appeared in more than half a dozen musical films together. "Show Boat," a box office powerhouse, featured their indelible performances in the numbers "Life Upon the Wicked Stage" and "I Might Fall Back On You."

Their later MGM films included "Lovely to Look At" (1952), a remake of the 1935 Astaire-Rogers film "Roberta"; "Everything I Have Is Yours" (1952), in which they received top billing as a married dance duo not unlike their own; "Give a Girl a Break," (1953), also featuring them in leading roles, under director Stanley Donen; and "Jupiter's Darling" (1955), featuring Esther Williams in a romance set in Roman antiquity.

Also in 1955, they joined the singer Harry Belafonte, a son of Jamaican immigrants, in a cross-country tour of the revue "Three for Tonight" that ventured into the segregated South at a time when interracial dancing was almost unknown, even considered subversive. Two years later, the Champions had a short-lived sitcom, "The Marge and Gower Champion Show," on CBS.

Champion largely retired from professional dancing after the birth of their two sons, but she remained active in show business by assisting her husband in his career. Broadway pulled him increasingly into a divided existence, with his work on the East Coast and his wife and children on the West Coast.

"That's very dangerous for two people who are very involved and have started out more as partners in everything," Champion told John Anthony Gilvey, author of "Before the Parade Passes By: Gower Champion and the Glorious American Musical."

After their divorce, Champion did her own choreography, winning an Emmy Award for her work on the TV movie "Queen of the Stardust Ballroom" (1975). In time, she became an honored elder of entertainment, a rare link to an era overtaken by rock-and-roll and later "Dancing With the Stars."

Marjorie Celeste Belcher was born in Los Angeles on Sept. 2, 1919. Her mother, Gladys Baskette, met Ernest Belcher when she enrolled a daughter from an earlier marriage in his dance school. That daughter grew up to be Lina Basquette, a standout member of the Ziegfeld Follies, a silent-film star and a subject of fascination for her tumultuous personal life.

Under her father's tutelage, she studied dance forms including ballet, acrobatics and tap and began her professional career as Marjorie Bell. "They thought Bell would look better on a marquee than Belcher," she told the Boston Globe.

Champion recounted that one day a scout for Walt Disney - "Uncle Walt" to her - came to her father's dance school in search of a model for the heroine of "Snow White." A young vocalist, Adriana Caselotti, was selected to provide Snow White's voice. Champion was chosen from among nearly 300 dancers to give the Disney character her motion.

Wearing high heels and a high-collared dress - and sometimes a helmet to mimic Snow White's solidly coifed hair - she pranced, twirled and posed before cameras that recorded her movements on 16-millimeter film.

Using the technique called rotoscoping, animators traced the footage frame by frame to produce the film that immediately won critical and popular acclaim. Champion, who received $10 a day for her work, sat anonymously in the balcony at the film's premiere. The moviemakers wanted Snow White "to be an illusion," said Champion, who also had donned bulky clothing to dance as the awkward dwarf Dopey.

"They didn't want anybody to get credit for the movement," she told the Berkshire Eagle of Pittsfield, Mass. "The publicity department and Mr. Disney thought it would be dangerous to the movie."

Champion later danced for Disney as the nimble hippopotamus in "Fantasia" (for which her daily wages were raised to $25) and as the Blue Fairy in "Pinocchio," both released in 1940. Outside the Disney studio, her early film roles included a small part in "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle" (1939), featuring Astaire and Rogers as the popular ballroom dancers of the early 1900s.

Her first marriage, to Disney animator Art Babbitt, ended in divorce. In 1980, Gower Champion died the day of the New York opening of the musical "42nd Street," which he had directed. Her third husband, film and TV director Boris Sagal, died the next year after being struck by a helicopter blade while filming a TV movie, "World War III."

In 1987, Champion's younger son, Blake Champion, died in a car accident. The successive tragedies plunged her into a depression from which she emerged through medication and psychotherapy, The New York Times reported in a 1999 profile.

Besides her son Gregg, survivors include a brother; and three grandchildren.

Champion appeared on Broadway as recently as 2001, when she was in her early 80s, in Stephen Sondheim's "Follies." For years, she maintained residences in New York and in the Berkshires, where she participated in regional theater and dance.

"I have made a life at home," she said, "without a partner, without a father or a husband directing me."