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Marge Champion, Legendary Golden Age Dancer of Stage and Screen, Dies at 101

Champion is perhaps best known for her longtime partnership with dancer Gower Champion.

Marge Champion
(© Tristan Fuge)

Legendary dancer Marge Champion, a veteran of the entertainment industry's Golden Age, has died at the age of 101.

Champion was born Marjorie Belcher in on September 2, 1919, in Los Angeles, the daughter of Hollywood dance teacher Ernest Belcher and his wife, Gladys. Her older half-sister, Lina Basquette, was also a performer, who began acting in silent films at the age of 12.

In the 1930s, Belcher, then 14, was hired by her father's friend, Walt Disney, to serve as the model for the character Snow White. She spent two years working on the project, earning $10 per day. She also served as the model for Dopey, the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio, Hyacinth Hippo in Fantasia, and Mr. Stork in Dumbo. She married Disney animator Art Babbitt, who created Goofy, in 1937. They divorced in 1940.

Belcher married fellow dancer Gower Champion in 1947. He was a student at her father's dance academy, and they became on- and offstage partners after World War II. They made seven movie musicals in the 1950s, including Mr. Music, the 1951 remake of Show Boat, Give a Girl a Break, and Three for the Show. Their experiences served as the basis for a short-lived television sitcom, The Marge and Gower Champion Show. They have two surviving sons, Blake Champion and Gregg Champion. The couple divorced in 1973.

Champion made her Broadway debut in 1943 with What's Up, also performing in Dark of the Moon (1945), Beggar's Holiday (1946), 3 for Tonight (1955), and the 2001 revival of Follies, playing Emily Whitman. She assisted Gower Champion with choreography on Broadway productions including Lend an Ear, Make a Wish, and Hello, Dolly!

In addition to an Emmy she earned for choreographing the 1975 television movie Queen of the Stardust Ballroom, Champion received a Disney Legends Award in 2007 and a lifetime achievement award at the Astaire Awards in 2013. Survivors also include her stepchildren, actors Katey Sagal and Joey Sagal, television writer Liz Sagal, director Jean Sagal, and she is predeceased by their father, Boris Sagal, whom Champion married in 1977.

"Gwen Verdon said, dancers die twice: once when they have to stop dancing and once when they finally do," Champion told TheaterMania in 2010. "I never felt totally at home with that idea, because I never considered that I had stopped dancing — even if it was in a gym with other ladies of my age. Yes, on some level, I would have liked to have had a hairdresser and a make-up man and proper lighting and all of that. But it wouldn't have told the story."

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