Joe Cornell holds the hand of Larry Miller’s daughter, Joanna, in 1988 at a Joe Cornell dance event. The crowd behind Cornell are teachers and staff. (By Leo Knight)

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.

Cornell’s Gift

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.

Larry Miller
Larry Miller dancing with his oldest friend and still best dancing partner Marci Rose Shulman at his Nov. 18, 1961 bar mitzvah, where Joe Cornell provided the entertainment. Courtesy of Larry Miller

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.” 

   

7 COMMENTS

  1. I took dance classes from Joe and was later in bands that played parties where Joe was MC’ing. He taught dancing but also taught courtesy and confidence. He was also a delight to work with and treated us kids in the band like we were “pros.”

    I was playing a private party in or near Newport Beach, CA about 20 years ago and ran into him. He was working the party for a friend. Needless to say, the old magic was still there!

  2. “Uncle Joe” Cornell was one of a kind. He was a role model for us young guys. He had a great sense of humor, especially his limericks. He used to take us on fishing trips and dance exhibits and really was like the pied piper. He loved to kibbits with us and was full of surprises. I was fortunate to know him. I worked for him as a DJ back in the sixties doing bar and bat mitzvahs. He taught us a lot and helped us develop confidence and poise. He would joke with me and say, “You have a lot of Italian friends and I have a lot of Jewish friends. How did that happen?”

    I miss him already.

  3. My parents and a group of their friends took lessons from Joe in the early to mid 50s, in their basement. I also took lessons from him in the early 50s in his Wyoming Ave studio near Mumford HS. Ten years later, when I became an Arthur Murray teacher, I went to visit him to see if he was hiring. He wasn’t at the time, but we talked about my parents, and me as an early teen like it was yesterday. A memorable person.

  4. I remember joe Cornell at the Omena Inn where I went with my parents around 1951. He was a lot of fun. Reminds me of “Dirty Dancing” except there was no romance, no sex, nothing to make a movie about.
    Sandy Schrut Weiswasser

  5. My family took Joe Cornell lessons in our basement on Pennington for my bar mitzvah. Then at his studio on Wyoming. Suzi Stewart and I won the dance contest at our Mumford prom. The next time I saw her at our 20th she was a dance instructor and the most beautiful woman in the room. I wish I could have stuck with Joe and maybe been one too. (Not the beautiful woman part) Great to see Joe at our reunions. He kept the dance floor busy. What a mensch!

  6. I met Joe and Irene Cornell in the late 60’s. I was teaching tap down the street at Julie Adler’s Dance Studio and Joe asked me to come and teach ballroom for him at the studio and Temple Isreal Cotillion for young students. I later worked with him to open a room at the back of the studio for “social ” ballet for 3 to 5 year olds. Joe and Irene were very dear friends to me and I enjoyed every moment with them. I later moved to Florida and lost touch. RIP Joe. You will be missed by many people that the warm, talented and giving person that you were.

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