Ken Phifer and Jean Dorfield founded the studio in 1948, the year before they were married. They were partnered as a dance team in their early teens, and it became a partnership for life. Although their lives were inextricably intertwined, Ken and Jean each have their own rich histories that formed the foundation upon which the Ken & Jean Dance Studio flourished and grew...
Jean was three when she first took her place in a dance class. Two years later, Ken walked into the same studio to begin dancing at the age of seven. Their teacher recognized a winning combination of talent and chemistry, and paired the two as a dance team. They were soon dancing together in performances across the tri-state area.
Jean had a passion for dance that would not wane throughout her life. At 14, she began spending her summers in New York, studying ballet with the greatest teachers of the time - Anthony Tudor, George Chaffee, Anatole Visak, Jack Potteiger, Mme. Butsova and the Ballet Repertory. She also studied flamenco with the Cansinos, Polynesian dancing with Huapala and various forms of Eastern and modern dance. She was brilliant at all of them.
Ken’s passion was music. He had perfect pitch and could play just about every instrument he picked up, but he truly excelled at piano, clarinet and saxophone. At the age of 16, he was offered a summer job playing the sax with a jazz band that toured the southeastern United States. When he returned home, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps to serve in WWII.
Ken became an Air Force navigator, and was also chosen to play in the band wherever he was stationed. When his tour of duty was over, he enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh where Jean was already majoring in English Literature and Education.
They spent their summers in New York, and at Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts, where Jean continued her previous studies and Ken refined his style of tap dancing while studying with Jack Stanly and Henry LeTang.
Shortly after receiving their college degrees, the opportunity to enter the dance business came along when the owner of an established studio moved out of state. Ken and Jean bought the studio in 1948, with plans to marry the following spring. As soon as they stepped foot in their own dance studio, they knew it was what they were meant to do. Thus began the Ken & Jean Dance Studio.
At the time, there was little in the way of children’s dance music, so Ken started to write his own. The students not only loved the music, but learned to dance much more quickly to Ken’s specialty tunes. This realization had two important consequences: It was the beginning of the unique style of teaching that became the Ken & Jean trademark, and Ken started his own record company. He hired musicians, including Joe Negri and John Costa, and vocalist, Maryann McMahon and produced over 40 records, which were sold exclusively to dance teachers. Ken eventually sold his label to Jules Stone, of Dance Caravan, in the 1970s.
As word of the talented and innovative young couple spread, they were asked to teach at conventions and were soon teaching regularly for the Dance Masters of America and Dance Educators of America, at both regional and national conventions.
After their two daughters were born, Jean decided to curb her travel and to focus instead on bringing the Cecchetti Method of Ballet to Pittsburgh. Ken continued to accept teaching engagements, often hopping on a plane after Saturday classes to teach at Sunday seminars.
Ken and Jean, ages 13 and 15 (left), and in the 1950s (above).
Ken attracted a huge following on the national circuit; at conventions, colleges and on Dance Caravan. When he was asked to teach at the Dance Masters Teachers’ Training School, his classes were so popular that the rules were changed, allowing him to teach for seven years back-to-back, which was something they had allowed no other teacher to do.
Both Ken and Jean were active members of the Cecchetti Council of America and the Dance Masters of America, to which they belonged for over 50 years. Ken was also a member of the Musicians’ Union.
Over the years, Ken and Jean were recipients of hundreds of awards, for themselves and for their students, and they were humbly honored to receive them all. Among the awards were the prestigious President’s Award from the Dance Masters of America, a Senatorial Proclamation from the State of Pennsylvania and, posthumously to Ken, the McKeesport Symphony Society’s Award for Service in the Arts.
Ken often remarked that he couldn’t believe his great fortune of the life his feet had given him; a remark that was sure to be followed by Jean laughing and rolling her eyes. In truth, they both felt extremely privileged to have lived lives that were meaningful and intensely creative.
In spite of great national success, Ken and Jean’s hearts were always with their students at home. It was with great pride that they saw so many of them follow successfully in their footsteps. Their daughters were also inspired by them to pursue creative lives. Wende became a film editor and artist, and Darcy had a very successful Broadway career. When Ken and Jean announced their retirement (something they never actually did), Darcy returned to Pittsburgh and it was into her capable hands that they entrusted their phenomenal legacy.
All three of Ken and Jean’s grandchildren danced as they were growing up, and one of them went on to win the prestigious Gene Kelly Award for his performance as the tap-dancing Tin Man in "The Wiz." All three of them continue to return home to help with the recital whenever possible and are extremely proud of what their grandparents accomplished.
Ken passed away in 2002. Until the week before he died, he was at the studio, handing out quarters for perfect dance steps from his ever-present chair. When Jean, too, passed away in the summer of 2006, many former students lamented that her passing, following Ken’s, signaled the end of an era. Although it was surely that in many ways, it is very clear that Ken and Jean continue to live on in the tap, tap, tapping and pirouetting of the thousands of dancers they so lovingly taught over 50 years, as well as in the daughter who embodies them both in her style of teaching and choreography.
Their legacy could not have been borne out more tellingly than by the groups of Ken & Jean Dancers who have competed against hundreds of competitors to win the Grand National Champions title at the Dance Masters of America National Convention year after year. And, further, that their daughter, Darcy, has continually been a recipient of the prestigious Dance Masters Choreography Award.
It is never a surprise when former students drop by the studio to say hello, only to end up talking at length about how important it was for them to have had the studio in their lives; that it was a second home where they made life-long friends, a place that taught them what an amazing thing it was to be able to dance, and a place where they were lovingly encouraged to always try to do their best. That is what Ken & Jean wanted most out of life - to pass along their love of dance to as many people as they could - and in that they surely succeeded in making their dreams come true.