Mildred “Millie” Cruzat was nearly 50 when she got an invitation to join Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre. She said yes and started touring with performers less than half her age.
In her 70s, she signed a modeling contract.
At 91, she could still do the splits.
Ms. Cruzat believed in looking your best, trying your hardest and s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g.
To the end of her life, she would dance into rooms and occasionally greet people at the door with one leg extended over her head.
Her family and friends came together earlier this month for her funeral following Ms. Cruzat’s death from heart failure in July at her Lake Meadows condo. She was 94.
They recalled a woman who was chic, vivacious, age-defying, regal and charming.
Her friend Beatrice Wilkinson Welters, a former U.S. ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago, remembers a trip to Jamaica, where they had a private audience with Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla Parker-Bowles.
“Millie stole the show,” Welters said. “She seemed to captivate the prince. They were laughing and joking and having the time of their lives.”
Her granddaughter Shanna Cruzat remembered a birthday dinner in her later years: “She is in the restaurant, and she has all the men on the floor — telling them they need to stretch.”
Art Norman, a friend and former WMAQ-TV news anchor and reporter, described lessons Ms. Cruzat instilled at the dance classes she taught. Norman said when a student walked in, “Millie said, ‘Young lady, come this way. You don’t walk like that. You observe your posture. Hold your head up because you’re a proud Black woman. And speak with authority. If you’re talking to somebody, look them in the eye.’”
Norman said: “She taught more than dance.”
She grew up in Detroit, a daughter of Florence and Sevar Clemon. Her mother was a health buff who exercised “and was drinking carrot juice very early on,” said Ms. Cruzat’s daughter Liza Cruzat Brooks. Her father operated a cleaners and haberdashery.
During the Great Depression, she lived for a year with an aunt in Montgomery, Alabama. They resided on Cleveland Avenue, which had a bus line that became famous when civil rights icon Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white man, Ms. Cruzat said in an interview with the The HistoryMakers, “the nation’s largest African American video oral history collection.”
She graduated from Detroit’s Northeastern High School and attended Highland Park Junior College in Michigan.
Young Millie took ballet lessons and found inspiration in dancers Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Katherine Dunham, Martha Graham and Gene Kelly. She got a job at the post office, saved her money and headed to New York City in her 20s to study dance.
She was one of the first Black women hired at Bloomingdale’s, according to her daughter Sevara Cruzat. Because she was light-skinned, her daughters said, people sometimes asked Ms. Cruzat if she was European and occasionally mistook her for prima ballerina Maria Tallchief, a member of the Osage Nation.
She took dance lessons at Carnegie Hall. Photographer Gordon Parks lived around the corner, and she watched tennis legend Althea Gibson play on a neighborhood court, she told The HistoryMakers.
Ms. Cruzat danced in 1940s revues and met then-rising actors like Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier.
In the oral history, she said she saw shows by Count Basie, Sammy Davis Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald at a time when Black artists often couldn’t enter the front door of the clubs where they performed.
After returning to the Midwest, she performed on a TV show in St. Louis hosted by deejay Spider Burks.
In 1954, she and Dr. Edward “Teddy” Cruzat got married. They settled in Chicago, where they raised their daughters and a son, Edward. Cruzat, who died in 2000, admired his wife’s beautiful posture and would tell the kids, “Sit up straight like your mother.”
During the 1970s, when she was in her late 40s, she joined the Joseph Holmes troupe.
“She was touring heavily, at 45, with 20-year-olds,” said Lynna Hollis, artistic director for Chicago Contemporary Dance Theatre, a dance studio in Bridgeport where Ms. Cruzat taught from 2013 until her final days.
Ms. Cruzat once told the Chicago Tribune that after performing, “I went home and sat in the tub every night.”
In the 1980s, she operated her own fitness center.
She also began teaching at Beethoven grade school, where Catrina Singletary, now 42, was one of her “Beethoven Ballerinas.”
“We lived in the Robert Taylor Homes,” Singletary said. “We lived in the projects. Her presence just demanded respect. She gave us these pep talks — what we can do, who we could be.”
Ms. Cruzat worked to get scholarships for her ballerinas. Made sure they had toe shoes. Introduced them to tennis and gymnastics. Fed them her famous gingersnap cookies.
On weekends, the girls would ask if they could come over to her house.
“We were playing with her clothes, her makeup,” Singletary said. “She just made us feel so wanted.”
Ms. Cruzat’s husband “just sat there and smiled,” Singletary said. “When I told him I wanted to be a nurse, he took me to the hospital” to be introduced to nurses working there. “They told us we could be great.”
Singletary now works at Stroger Hospital and is in school to complete her nursing degree.
In the 1990s, Ms. Cruzat taught exercise classes at Lake Meadows.
She loved frosted lipstick, Royal Secret perfume and unfussy ensembles like jeans with sky-high heels and an arresting piece of jewelry.
She enjoyed jogging and yoga.
She admired ballet stars Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev. Nureyev signed a program for her after a performance, and she always kept it.
In addition to her three children and granddaughter Shanna, Ms. Cruzat is survived by her granddaughters Aliya and Carley.
“I’m not just about dancing,” she once told WLS-TV’s “Windy City Live”. “I’m about [students’] character, their attitude, them being special. You don’t have to be the brightest, and you don’t have to be what they call the prettiest. You find something. I find something in every child I have. And then I make them even more special.”
After all of the classes she taught, she said, “I have a lot of children now.”