By Helen Gifford
SALEM — On summer evenings the music drifts out onto the Essex Street pedestrian mall, floating down from the open windows on the third floor of a red-brick building.
A passer-by might pause and look up. Occasionally someone will settle onto a bench to listen. Some have asked if there's a concert upstairs.
For 36 years Gene Murray has kept the music going in his airy studio in downtown Salem, but that will end June 30.
Murray, 72 , is closing his School of Dance, after teaching thousands of local children and adults the art of ballet, the joys of tap and the intricacies of ballroom dancing — all, of course, while minding their manners.
Along the way he's become something of a legend in local dance circles as both a wit and a disciplinarian, a professional tap dancer who always loved ballet first, and a man who knew how to wield a cane — to pound out rhythms while calling out instructions to his dancers.
In the studio, "I take command," he acknowledged. "I always have."
Sometimes he takes command pretty loudly. He cracks up when telling the tale of one dancer, whom he mockingly berated for being late to class, replying that she knew exactly how late she was, "because I could hear your big mouth all the way down the street."
Commanding presence or not, he is devoted to his students.
"He always has a pet name for all the girls that he makes up," said JoAnna Mooney of Beverly, who has been taking her daughter to classes there for five years. "... He really is passionate about the girls loving what they do and doing it well."
Although he's taught thousands of children, he's also taught a lot of adults — including quite a few dance teachers who still take class at his studio.
"He is so highly regarded in dance circles," said Laura Dow, a Gloucester dancer who began studying with Murray years ago and now teaches children's classes at his studio. "He always has enthusiasm for teaching — it never wanes. ... He always comes up with such interesting and different choreography."
Part of what made him an effective teacher, said Katy Brunault, owner of the Hamilton-Wenham School of Dance, is that "throughout his career he continued to study and analyze the best ways to teach. For years, he took his annual trip to New York City to visit the Joffrey Ballet School and was invited to sit in on classes there.
"He is a wonderful choreographer and well-versed in ballet, tap and ballroom."
It was tap that brought Murray into the dance world.
Growing up in North Salem in the 1940s and '50s, he was Gene Trabucco, and he started dance lessons — tap and what was called "moderne" — at 11.
It wasn't an obvious choice for a boy back then.
"In my time it was tough for boys, let me tell you," he conceded. "We didn't talk about it too much."
But, he said, "I knew from the get-go that this is what I wanted to do."
After high school — Salem High, Class of 1956 — which he squeaked through by getting academic credit for choreographing the senior show — he moved directly into dancing.
He'd gather with other entertainers outside the Clarendon Hotel in Boston, where managers would come by at night to gather performers — a tap dancer (Murray), a stripper, a juggler, a singer — and take them to Worcester, Lowell and other venues to perform in nightclubs.
SDLqThey were dives," he said with a laugh. "I had a 10-minute solo — nonstop hoofing. They'd be drinking and talking, beer bottles would go flying." But he was dancing, and making $25 a night.
That's when he got his stage name. One night at the Blue Moon in Lowell, he said, the manager who was about to introduce him told him to pick another name because his was too hard to pronounce.
"All I could think of was Arthur Murray," the famous ballroom teacher, he said — and from then on he was known as Gene Murray.
Eventually he moved to New York, taking a nonstop whirl of ballet and other dance classes.
"Ballet was what I really wanted to do," he said, "but I didn't have the body for it.
"I always had to work on my weight. Even today I have three sets of clothes: I have a thin set, I have a medium set, and I have a fat set."
Tap, on the other hand, came easily. At one point he was chosen for a touring group of the June Taylor Dancers and traveled around the country in their Autorama Show, dancing around the cars when the new models came out.
But eventually he returned home, continuing to dance at local nightspots and then teaching, first in a rented studio in Peabody, then in another Essex Street building in Salem, and finally at his current studio at 175 Essex St., where he also has an apartment.
From the start, the Gene Murray School of Dance was different.
He couldn't stand "the ballyhoo of costumes" and the recital that is an end-of-year ritual at so many schools. It cut into the training time for young dancers.
"The first half of the year you'd do the barre" — teaching the fundamentals of ballet — "and then the second half, you'd have to spend teaching some stupid dance for the recital," he said.
He quickly switched to a lecture-demonstration for parents at the end of the year.
He garnered a reputation as a serious dance teacher, which may have cost him a few students more interested in tutus than training, but he never minded. Over the years he got referrals from throughout the area for kids with a serious interest in dance, and he prided himself when some of them went on to professional schools and careers as dancers and dance teachers.
"You never know," he said, "when there's going to be somebody out of that group that may have that talent that you can nurture and bring out."
Even for those who will never dance on a stage, he says, dance training has inestimable value.
"It's such discipline," he said. "It's blood, sweat and tears."
And as a result, he said, dance students learn to work hard, to focus and not to sweat the small stuff.
It's great physical training — "You see it in the way you hold yourself," he said.
"And you get a love for classical music and an appreciation for art, which is missing today in so many schools.
"When I was in grammar school, we'd all collect money and go to the opera once a year. We'd have to wear a suit, and Mr. Murphy would give us a music lesson. ... It gave all of us a respect for that.
"I feel bad for these kids that have never seen a ballet or an opera. They make fun of it because they don't know what it's all about."
Murray still teaches almost daily, and he still loves it; he hopes to teach some classes at other studios after his own closes. But he moved to South Boston several years ago, and keeping up his own studio in Salem has become too difficult.
For someone who started teaching more than four decades ago, the decision to close wasn't an easy one.
"But I'm OK about it," he said.
"You know when it's time."
A TRIBUTE TO GENE MURRAY
Students and friends are hosting a farewell gathering for Gene Murray as he closes his dance studio, with drinks, desserts and conversation throughout the day.
When: Sunday, June 12, 2 to 8 p.m.
Where: Gene Murray Dance Studio, 175 Essex St., Salem
RSVP to Laura Dow at email@example.com