NEWBURYPORT — A lifelong Luigi Style Jazz devotee and founder of The Dance Place, Irene Weiss Miller left her indelible mark on the Greater Newburyport dance community, especially those who knew her from the beginning.
On July 10, Miller died at the age of 68 at her home in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Her husband, Dr. Jeffrey Miller, said the cause was Parkinson’s disease and breast cancer.
Miller, who taught dance in Newburyport for more than 30 years, lived and breathed the Luigi Style Jazz technique. The technique, which involves ballet-based stretching, was created by Eugene Louis Faccuito, an American dancer, after he suffered paralyzing injuries in a car accident in 1946. He went on to teach the jazz technique for a few decades in New York, something Miller brought many students there to experience firsthand.
"It's always been an attractive technique for people who aren't necessarily going to become dancers, but want to be able to move and feel good about their body," said Carole Wagan, a lawyer and longtime close friend of Miller. "Irene was definitely supportive of that. She welcomed all kinds of people to her classes."
Wagan said Miller was teaching at the former YMCA on State Street when they first met. Miller, who was going through a divorce at the time, ended up offering free dance classes in exchange for Wagan's legal assistance.
"I feel like I owe my physical well-being to her influence and encouragement," Wagan said "She imbued in me a lifelong love of Luigi Style Jazz dance, which has added immeasurably to the quality and joy in my life. She had a profound impact on many in the area as a gifted teacher, mentor and giving member of the community. She herself never stopped trying to be a better person."
Fontaine Dubus, who now owns and operates The Dance Place, also met Miller as a student in the early 1980s and looked up to her as a mentor for the decades following.
Dubus called Miller a "Luigi disciple" because she was so devoted to its idea, particularly the Luigi mantra, "Never stop moving."
Miller ensured the studio was a safe and comforting place for all, regardless of experience level, something Dubus was drawn to.
"She was kind and gentle, and never rude or discouraging," Dubus said. "She was such a beautiful presence. You never felt unwelcome in her class."
When Dubus approached her about taking over the business in 2008, Miller was thrilled to hear that someone would continue teaching the Luigi Jazz technique within the community.
"She loved what she was doing, and it showed," Dubus said.
Echoing what Wagan and Dubus said of their first meetings, Susan Atwood said she hadn't danced in three years when she walked into Miller's class at Northern Essex Community College at the age of 17. Atwood had struggled to find a dance studio she could call home, but Miller soon connected her with a whole community.
"Irene's impeccable teaching of Luigi jazz and loving vivacious spirit was infectious," she wrote in an email, adding that Miller was "not only my mentor, but my dear friend and supportive loving sister" for close to 40 years.
"Irene Weiss entered Newburyport like a shooting star, leaving in her wake over the last five decades a following of people profoundly influenced by her presence as a teacher, a friend, and a dancer," Nancy Hayes, another longtime close friend, said. "She was a rare spirit who drew people in with her warmth and love, and touched their lives with her passion to share her joy of dance."
Hayes, who met Miller in 1981 at a Yankee Homecoming performance and bonded with her over a love of the arts, said she "will be remembered with the same love she brought to others whose lives she touched, and the impact she had on our community as a teacher of dance and of life."