Skippy Blair's DANCE BLOG

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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Willie Desatoff, Noted Balboa Dancer, Transferred to New Horizons

Willie Desatoff, a dancer friend of over 40 years, was one of the greatest Balboa dancers who ever lived, receiving numerous trophies and awards from1938-present, and in 1998 was inducted into the California Swing Dance Hall of Fame. He spent the last years of his life doing what he loved most: teaching and sharing his love for the dance Balboa both in his home and at events around the country. He was slated to make a special appearance in London later this month.

I feel privileged to have been asked to do the Eulogy at the burial in Riverside this Friday.

Willie is survived by his wife of 20 years, Lila (Gavin) Desatoff; daughter, Manya (Desatoff) Turner; step-children, Denny Andrews, Frank Mercurio, Karen (Curry) Kordakis, and Andrew Barry Clements, Jr.; brother, John J. Desatoff; two grandchildren and six step-grandchildren.

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Willie's parents emigrated from Russia with their families. An entire Russian Molokan community was established in East Los Angeles, Central California, and Baja California.

Willie and his older brother, John, were born in East Los Angeles, and were among the first of their community to graduate from high school. (Roosevelt High)

Willie was a tiny one at birth, & his family really believed he might not survive. Even at birth, he fooled the family & the doctors by surviving the expected. This determination for survival would surface again in 2001.

Willie's mother enjoyed taking her young sons to the movies. That was when Willie first saw Fred Astaire. This experience would later influence Willie's style of dance.

Willie was a perfectionist, and worked hard at everything he did. As a teenager, he wanted to play football like his big brother John, but because of his build, the coach was afraid that he'd get hurt. Luckily for us, his pursuit of excellence got turned toward the dance.

Willie had two aunts who were very good dancers, and they passed that on to Willie. Willie's grandfather was not just a carpenter, but a master craftsman, doing inlaid work on chests and cabinets. One of Willie's first jobs was working in his uncles' cabinet shop. Later he built caskets for Ragsdale Casket Co. and this is where he developed his slides - practicing sliding on the sawdust on the floor. The job also provided money for dance clothes.

Willie enjoyed a sense of style. He was the first in his neighborhood to wear "tailor-made drape clothes" and he influenced several of the other dancers to do the same. He actually took them to his tailor and picked out what would best improve their appearance.

Willie was one of a handful of dancers that could dance extremely fast, yet very smooth. Over the years, he developed his unique style. He loved teaching, and would sometimes line up several guys at a dance, and teach them some of his moves. Willie's father was, among several occupations, a commercial fisherman. Willie loved the sea. No doubt brought about by spending so much time with his father on the boat. He spent 4 years in the Coast Guard during WWII. Two and a half of those were at sea.

Willie's daughter Manya, his only child, was born on his 45th birthday. He adored her and took her everywhere with him. She was his pride and joy.

At the age of 62 - Willie finally met the love of his life. It was July of 1984 when she walked in to attend his dance class. How could she help but be captivated when he charmed her with his eloquence by asking: "Who the hell are you, and who invited you to my class?"

As Lila says: "Who could resist such a romantic question? They were married the following June. They survived 20 years of good times and bad. The worst being Sept. 10, 2001 (day before the horror of the World Trade Center) Willie was taken to the hospital & slipped into a coma. After 8 days, the doctors gave up and said he would not survive. They transferred him to a convalescent home to die.

Visiting him every day, Lila worked diligently on his recovery. Conversations -Hand holding - reassurance - Soon he began responding and worked hard to be able to return home.

He & Lila often laughed at how he had visited the "Pearly Gates." It just wasn't his time. But the experience gave them a 4 year bonus.

Willie was not fully aware of the "Swing Revival" that had been taking place while he was recuperating. Lila would go out dancing, meeting all of the "new kids on the block" and bring back the exciting news to Willie. This eventually got him to start teaching again. Still - it wasn't until he was invited to "Speak" in Cleveland, that he started to realize what was really
taking place... The dance that he loved - Balboa - was finally gaining nationwide popularity.

During the last 4 years of his life, Willie & Lila traveled to Cleveland (4 times), Portland, Houston, and Atlanta, meeting people from all over theworld.

When he finally accepted the invitation to London, he realized that his dream had been fulfilled. Balboa had really spread worldwide. Since his passing, Lila has received notes from all over the United States, as well as from England, Germany, France, Belgium, Finland, Sweden, Japan, Korea, and Australia.

Lila wants to thank everyone for their thoughtfulness. She was rather amazed at the LOVE being expressed on the internet, in forums, through e-mail, phone calls, and cards. She says that she knows that Willie would not have believed all of the postings from all over the world and she doubts too that he ever realized how many lives he had affected.

Willie did NOT want any funeral dirges on his passing. His request was for White Heat to be played at his funeral. It is fitting that White Heat has currently become popular again -world-wide, and for many of us, that song will serve as a constant and permanent reminder of our friend Willie Desatoff. He will always be with us - in videos - in the emulation of his style of dancing - and in our hearts.

One last request from Lila - Lila and Willie were married in my back yard. Her request at that time was for me to sing one of my love songs for their wedding. She wanted me to pick the song. I went through every one - and not one of them sounded like Lila & Willie. I remembered Lila telling me about going fishing and the two of them just sitting in the silence, out there on
the water. I decided to write a song -just for their wedding. That song has been sung at a hundred different weddings and Lila asked me to share that song with the people attending the memorial. The recording is 20 years old but it's the words that are important. I will be asking everyone to close their eyes - listen to those words - and know that Willie will be smiling down at all of us.

I will close the ceremony with this last word from Lila:

Because of his smooth style of dancing, Lila came up with a quote for Willie just a few months ago. She didn't know at the time, that it would be his epitaph: From Willie Desatoff, Balboa & Swing Dance Legend - "Bless you my children, go and bounce no more."