Dance/USA Honors an international dance legend who is also a pillar of the KC dance community
For more than four decades Billie Mahoney has made her mark on the dance and choreographic world. As a dance notator, Mahoney transcribed the collaborative rhythms of creative maestros like George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky. She has danced with legendary stars such as Gregory Hines and Bob Hope. As a choreographer, she has staged opera, ballet works and musical theater revivals at universities across the nation and overseas.
In June, the dance world will honor Mahoney with the Champion Award at Dance/USA’s 35th annual conference in Kansas City.
The award came as a complete surprise, Mahoney said. She was teaching tap at the Kansas City Ballet School when the ballet’s director, Devon Carney, appeared at the door and asked her to meet with him and the faculty for an important announcement about the Dance/USA Conference.
“At first I thought I was being brought in to help the committee with the hosting preparations,” Mahoney said. “And then he turned around to everyone to congratulate me on my award!”
Mahoney’s career in dance began in high school, where she was a champion baton twirler/tap dancer multi-versed in ballet, singing, acrobatics and skating. High school photographs show a lively Kansas City girl with a “take-on-the-world” smile.
Mahoney headed to New York in 1950, right after graduating from UMKC with a Bachelor of Arts in Foreign Languages and Literature. Her remembrances are vivid: “Arriving in New York City . . . with tap shoes and batons, I was immediately booked in Long Island and New Jersey. While breaking in (acts), I became thoroughly engrossed in the new Jazz Dance . . . which felt like the rhythms and footwork of tap . . . combined with the body movement of modern dance.”
Her jazz dance appearances included the Tonight Show, Ed Sullivan Show, Jackie Gleason Special, and the NBC Caesar’s Hour. She performed frequently with Bob Hope, with Lionel Hampton at the Apollo Theater, with De Cuevas Ballet at Waldorf Astoria, with Bob Fosse in “Pal Joey” and with Gene Nelson in “Song of Norway.” She twirled batons for the Ringling Bros. and the Barnum & Bailey Circus and skated for ice shows.
In 1956, Mahoney reached a career benchmark, obtaining her Advanced Certificate and Teacher Certification in Labanotation, a system of recording specific dance movements named for its inventor, Rudolf von Laban.
She soon became an esteemed contributor to the Dance Notation Bureau Library in New York City. Her expertise in Labanotation brought her in contact with legends of the dance world as well an opportunity to serve on the faculty of the Julliard School. Mahoney was the professional notator for George Balanchine’s world premiere of “Agon,” Doris Humphrey’s multiple dance masterpieces, Sigurd Leeder’s “Danse Macabre,” José Limón’s “Carlota,” “Concerto Grosso in D Minor,” “There is a Time,” and Limón’s signature ballet, “The Moor’s Pavane.” She also notated for American Dance Machine by Jack Cole, known as the “Father of Theatrical Jazz Dance.”
Even with extensive performances, tours, and lectures, Mahoney maintained her own NYC studio, Billie Mahoney School of Modern Jazz Dance, from 1960 to 1985. She also taught at the New York School of Ballet and the Harkness House for Ballet Arts. In 1973 she received the UMKC Alumni Achievement Award; in 1982 she was honored with Boston’s Dancing Ambassador of Friendship Award.
Mahoney moved back to Kansas City to be with family in 1992, relocating her weekly production show “DANCE ON: with Billie Mahoney” from New York City, where it ran from 1980 to 1995, to Kansas City’s KHEN 17, the UMKC Cable Channel. With more than 300 productions to date, the program features Mahoney’s one-on-one interviews with leaders of the dance community.
Since returning to Kansas City, Mahoney demonstrated her jazz tap talents when she danced with Gregory Hines in a 2001 Folly Theater production. The following year, she was guest artist for the “Fabulous Palm Springs Follies” in California.
Teaching is one of her passions. Mahoney served as adjunct professor at UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance from 1999 to 2015; she joined the Kansas City Ballet School faculty in 2011. She mentors her students, whether they be aspiring dance majors, pre-professionals, or seniors in her Billie Mahoney Dance Troupe, to achieve their dreams of performance. Mahoney dedicates her time to opening opportunities for them in community events such as National Tap Dance Day, Theater-in-the Park, and the Uptown Arts Bar.
Mahoney’s devotion to the dance community is only surpassed by the vital role she has played in the history of jazz dance, tap and choreography. Dancing with Billie Mahoney is truly “an art of the heart.”
The 2017 Dance/USA Champion Award will be presented to Mahoney on June 7, during Dance/USA’s Opening Night Celebration at Union Station.
Photo by Serena S.Y. Hsu