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Time Machine: The 2 women who danced away the decades in Cedar Rapids

Oct 10, 2017

By Diane Langton, The Gazette


Edna Dieman and Julia Bennett were an institution in Cedar Rapids, where they taught dance to thousands of students for almost five decades, from 1951 to 1996. They were called Miss Dieman and Miss Bennett, and the city declared Dec. 15, 1990, as Edna Dieman-Julia Bennett Day to honor their longtime dedication and commitment to the arts in the city.

When Edna Dieman was born in Cedar Rapids on Sept. 24, 1903, dancing was limited to parties and social affairs. There were two academies that introduced popular dance steps of the day and hosted events, but there was no classical dance training.

Edna lived with her parents, Ewald and Louise Steineck Dieman, who operated a plumbing business, at 215 B Ave. NW. The household also included her two sisters, Lorraine and Marian, and eventually her grandfather, Gotthold Steineck, and her aunt, Augusta Marie, her mother’s sister.

Her grandfather Steineck and his wife, Augusta Dorbeck Steineck, moved from Germany to Cedar Rapids with their five children in 1882. Gotthold was the son of a Polish nobleman and “had a good musical education,” according to his obituary in 1919.

The Dieman girls were afforded every advantage possible in music and the arts at the insistence of their mother and aunt, including lessons from those early dance teachers.

Miss Dieman went to Coe College, where she was an assistant to Bonnie Fisher, who brought ballet and dance performance. Fisher’s studio was on the third floor of the Don Cook building (across First Avenue from the then new post office).

As soon as Miss Dieman graduated from Coe in 1925, with a degree in music and studied dance, she opened a dance studio, and her students gave their first recital at Franklin High School on March 25, 1926.

In 1939, Madame La Meri of New York’s Ethnologic Dance Center arrived in Cedar Rapids for a presentation of “dance drama.” La Meri’s school taught the dances of different cultures and information about the people who perform them and the history of the dances. It made an impression on Miss Dieman.

In 1943, when she was 40, Miss Dieman finally realized her dream of heading to New York. She studied dance at the Denishawn school and taught Spanish and Indian dance at La Meri’s school.

Because Madame La Meri had studied for many years in India, she emphasized the dances from there.

Miss Bennett was born in India to British parents on Sept. 16, 1916. She was educated in England and would later become a naturalized American citizen. She had studied voice and classical ballet in London, appearing in operatic productions at Drury Lane, Theatre Royal and His Majesty’s Theatre. With the outbreak of World War II, she was forced to remain in India. But when the war ended, she set out for New York, where a cousin worked at the Ethnologic Dance Center.

Miss Dieman and Miss Bennett became friends almost immediately.

In 1951, Miss Dieman’s family asked that she return home for a year. She asked Miss Bennett if she would like to accompany her to the Midwest and help teach dance classes.

When they arrived in Cedar Rapids, Miss Dieman opened the Dieman-Bennett Studio of Dance, where the two taught Spanish, East Indian and Javanese dance in addition to classic ballet. The two were soon giving performances, using the dramatic interpretations they taught at the studio.

The pair presented a song and dance recital March 29, 1952, for the Beethoven Club in the YMCA Little Theater. Even though there had been a snowstorm and the city’s bus drivers were on strike, they played to a full house.

Ethel Ryan, Miss Dieman’s former teacher at Coe who was then at Cornell, arranged for the dancer to teach some of her students.

In 1953, Miss Dieman and Miss Bennett choreographed the Children’s Theater of Cedar Rapids’ performance of “Hansel and Gretel.” The dance studio’s students were featured in the play’s four performances, and Playtime Poppy appeared at intermission.

The event for which they were most noted in Cedar Rapids — their annual production of “The Nutcracker” — began with a production of the “Nutcracker Suite” on Feb. 19, 1961. A full “Nutcracker” was performed at the Paramount Theatre, beginning in 1972.

It was because of “The Nutcracker” that Miss Dieman and Miss Bennett began collaborating with Jefferson High School vocal music director Torrence Carlson, who often played Drosselmeyer in the annual production. They credited Carlson for piquing their interest with his 1959 Christmas concert, in which Carlson’s daughter played Clara with a group of Dieman-Bennett dancers.

In 1962, after their one-year trial in Cedar Rapids had turned into a decade, Miss Dieman and Miss Bennett organized their own dance troupe, the Dieman-Bennett Dance Theatre of the Hemispheres. The troupe was funded mainly by its founders, along with grants from the Iowa Arts Council.

Classes at their studio were divided between the teachers, with Miss Bennett instructing the 5- to 13-year-olds and Miss Dieman taking the older students.

When Cedar Rapids was chosen as the site of the Midstate Regional Ballet Festival in 1981, the two dance teachers appreciated that it was an honor usually given to large cities. They worked diligently to make the festival a success.

The pair gave up their house and in 1983 were living in a modest apartment in Cedar River Tower but still walked to their studio every day to teach. Arthritis had forced Miss Dieman to give up dancing five years before, but her “Peter Pan spirit” inspired the dancers while Miss Bennett taught.

The two retired in 1996. Three years later, Miss Dieman died. Miss Bennett followed in 2014. They were 95 and 97, respectively.

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