The dance instructor’s death evokes teenage memories for generations.
Joe Cornell was the stuff of legends. With a broad smile, a big laugh and a ton of personality, he brought social dancing — and etiquette — to generations of Jewish kids in Metro Detroit and beyond.
Now his community, which includes decades of students, teachers, friends and family, is mourning his March 18 death of natural causes. He was 90 years old.
“He was everybody’s uncle,” said Steve Jasgur of West Bloomfield, who attended Cornell’s dance classes as a preteen and later co-owned the business with his sister. “He was Jewish, but he wasn’t Jewish — he probably went to more bar mitzvahs than any Jewish kid in his lifetime.”
Born Giuseppe Thomas Coronella on May 29, 1929, to Italian immigrants, he grew up in Detroit, where his father, Salvatore, worked for Ford Motor Company and his mother, Sebastiana, was a homemaker. He graduated from Cass Technical High School in Detroit and took broadcast, interpretive reading and acting classes at Wayne State University.
Coronella graced the dance floor of the Arthur Murray Studio in Detroit in the late 1940s, and then had a dance career that took off as his dance studio job sent him to resorts around Michigan.
Along the way, Coronella was told to Americanize his name for broader appeal, so he became Joe Cornell. And that Joe Cornell became such a household name and built such a community that phone calls and messages haven’t stopped flooding in for days — at all hours — to contribute to the story of his life and what he meant to people.
Cornell found a niche teaching kids in the pre-bar/bat mitzvah crowd. And though they learned the dances of the day, including the Foxtrot, Cha Cha and Jitterbug, the classes were about so much more, said his daughter, Trina, who lives in Phoenix.
“So many amazing kids, the lives they have, the confidence — it shaped who these young kids became,” she recalled. “To me, that was the most impressive part. I know so many of the students who have become doctors, lawyers, so well-established in the community. That all came from how he shaped them. It’s all about ‘do the right thing and be courteous.’”
Known for seeing the best in people and always having a kind word to say, everyone was his friend, she said. “He was just magic. And always an adventure. We never knew what the next day was going to bring.”
Cornell had two children, Trina and Salvatore (Tori), with his first wife, Irene. His son died in 1983. Cornell divorced, and married his second wife, Kathy, in 1977. The two moved to California in the late ’70s, and he flew back and forth to Michigan for work.
Jasgur attended Joe Cornell’s dance program in 1982 as a sixth grader. He and other students took classes at synagogues and country clubs. They were paired up and would practice for the big May Ball. During his year, Jasgur and his partner came in second place out of hundreds of couples. A few years later, his sister Rebecca and her partner also took second place.
In 1985, Rebecca, 14, was asked about becoming a junior instructor. Steve, then 16, drove his younger sister to that first meeting — and both were hired. They built names for themselves on the party circuit. In 1991, Cornell sold the business to the brother-and-sister duo. Star Trax Event Productions, which bought the business in 2015, still runs the Joe Cornell Experience dance program.
Jasgur says “Uncle Joe” made everyone feel comfortable and connected.
“Nobody was a stranger,” Jasgur said. “He had this gift for making everyone feel like he really knew them. And he was such a good dancer.”
Schlussel of West Bloomfield recalls waiting eagerly to be old enough to take the Joe Cornell class.
“I loved the camaraderie,” she said. “This was the highlight of my week. Watching him dance was an unbelievable joy; being one of the women he was dancing with was even better.”
Larry Miller of Bloomfield Hills learned to dance at age 3 from Cornell, who was working at his grandparents’ summer resort, the Greenbush Inn in Greenbush, Michigan. “I think that started my love for dance,” he said.
When his grandparents sold the resort in the mid-1950s, Joe Cornell came back to the Detroit area and opened his Oak Park dance studio.
“He really taught us how to handle ourselves,” Miller said. “More than just how to dance: How to communicate with the opposite sex, how to be polite and how to be nice even to our fellow dancers.”
Then, in the early ’60s, Miller said, bar and bat mitzvah dance lessons picked up.
“He didn’t just teach thousands of kids, he taught tens of thousands of kids,” said Miller, whose children and grandchildren also learned to dance, thanks to Cornell.
Sharon Gould Eaton of West Bloomfield took lessons at age 12, became an assistant and then a teacher for Cornell. She remembers how he flew in to accompany her to her son’s wedding. He even gave the couple a dance lesson at the start of the weekend.
“He was kind, he was compassionate, he was giving,” she said. “He was always positive. He was just a beautiful, beautiful human being.”
Cornell also flew in to emcee her Mumford High School reunions. “He could walk into a room and bring an entire crowd together. He would have them mesmerized,” she said of Cornell, who continued dancing late into his life.
Suzi Stewart Rappaport of West Bloomfield met Cornell when she was in her 20s. They were friends and dance partners, she said, adding that she helped at bar mitzvah parties in the ’80s. She, her husband and her kids went to visit “Uncle Joe” at his house up north on weekends.
“You could always count on him,” she said. “He was a phenomenal friend. He was filled with guidance, a rock-solid citizen.”
Even after her children grew up, she would go to help judge the May Ball. She recalled going back to the Oak Park studio afterward with the other judges, where they’d dance all night.
“He could make anybody who didn’t know how to dance look good and dance better,” she said.
Jeff Milgrom, now of Columbus, Ohio, was 13 in 1967, when he met Cornell at a party. Milgrom took lessons and worked for Cornell, going on to emcee bar mitzvahs and continuing to emcee parties on his own for some 15 years in different states. The two spoke frequently throughout the years.
Milgrom, who runs an entertainment and sports marketing firm, called Cornell the pied piper of young Jewish teenagers. “Everybody back when I was young took Joe Cornell. That’s what you’d say, ‘Did you take Joe Cornell?’”
He points out that even though Cornell faced huge tragedies — the loss of his son and, more recently, the loss of a grandson, which left him broken-hearted — he was so well-known for making people laugh and making other people happy.
“Everybody knew him for so many generations,” he said, adding that people would stop Cornell to talk whenever he was out. “He had a magnetic personality. He was a celebrity in the Detroit suburbs for all those years.”