For more than 60 years, Helene Cornelius danced around the country, becoming nationally and internationally known as an authoritative teacher of English country dance who would not hesitate to introduce new routines.
“Helene danced so well because she moved well and had a great instinct for phrasing, along with the love of music,” said Sue Salmons of Hilton Head, S.C., who met Mrs. Cornelius in 1960 at a dance in New York City. Mrs. Cornelius, Salmons said, “appreciated the more intricate dances, as well as the simple ones.”
Brad Foster of Shutesbury, a teacher of English country dance and executive director emeritus of the Country Dance & Song Society in Easthampton, said that Mrs. Cornelius “enjoyed the beauty and style of dances from the era when she started.”
“She was a beautiful dancer and a great model for how to dance,” Foster said. “She liked to have dances done well and worked as a teacher and a dancer to accomplish that. I always learned something from Helene.”
Mrs. Cornelius died May 3 in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center of a brain injury suffered in a fall. She was 87 and lived in Arlington.
Foster met Mrs. Cornelius in 1971 during his first trip to the Pinewoods Camp for dance and music in Plymouth, where she and her husband taught. He had traveled there with some other California teenagers.
“I was very impressed with Helene,” Foster said. “I immediately forged a connection with her that grew stronger each year I returned to Pinewoods. She seemed quite reserved, and I was a little intimidated at first, but I quickly got over that.”
After asking Mrs. Cornelius one time for help obtaining a copy of a dance tune, he learned she did not mince words. “I thought she might be able to give me a photocopy, even though photocopiers weren’t all that common back then,” Foster recalled. “Instead, she wrote it out by hand and sent it to me in the mail with a terse note suggesting I bring my own music paper next time. Rather than being put off by that, I felt great appreciation for her help, and over the years Helene became my main contact if I had any questions on how a dance was done or where to find a dance. I will miss that greatly.”
The oldest of four children, Helene Valeska Thoman was born in Cincinnati and was close to her maternal grandmother, after whom she was named. She played the piano, Ping-Pong, and tennis during frequent visits to her grandmother’s house and accompanied her to the opera.
At what was then Hillsdale School in Cincinnati, she excelled in math, and during summer breaks she worked as a nurse’s aide at a hospital.
She graduated from Smith College with a bachelor’s degree in math in 1946. Two years later, she received a master’s in math from Radcliffe College.
While studying for her master’s, she worked on Long Island in New York as an engineering aide for the company that now is Northrop Grumman Corp.
After completing her degree, she worked in a Harvard laboratory on a project developing an early version of a computer.
In 1951, Harvard co-workers invited her to a dance in Boston. There she met Arthur Cornelius of South Boston. They married the next year.
‘Her passing marks the end of an era.’
“I believe my parents’ marriage was a strong one that endured for 60 years because they allowed each other the freedom to pursue their own interests while always sharing a common love of traditional English dance and music,” said their daughter Lynn Cornelius Jacobs of Belmont.
Her brother David of Rossland, British Columbia, said their parents complemented each other.
“Helene loved opera, symphony, and chorus, while Arthur studied jazz under his headphones,” David said. “But they were completely in tune on everything related to dance.”
Both parents, he added, “were voracious students of the teachers of their day.”
Mrs. Cornelius and her husband, who died last year, sometimes invited friends to their home to sing. Lynn described those occasions as social and seriously musical.
“They shared beers and plenty of laughs, but the emphasis was on making music,” Lynn said. “As a child, I loved listening to all of those voices combining to create wonderful sounds, and I always found a way to hide on the stairs so I could listen in.”
Trips to Pinewoods were a staple in the Cornelius home. “Attending Pinewoods Camp was the absolute highlight of my year, right up until I went to college,” Lynn said. “To disappear into this beautiful pine-wooded enclave for two weeks and spend our days and nights socializing with dear friends from around the country and around the globe, awash in music and dance, was truly magical.”
Pinewoods “has always been a place of smiles, laughter, and movement,” David said. “The cabin at which we stayed had a little porch out front, with a railing ostensibly for safety but which doubled as a landing place for beverage containers. After the dancing, a varied group of campers would repair to this cabin to share a cold beverage, discuss the dancing or other wide-ranging topics. That cabin was the focal point of the social gathering at Pinewoods.”
Though known for dancing, Mrs. Cornelius also loved traveling. David recalled that his mother kept books about the Southwest, “and there were a slew of photos from her trip with two girlfriends from Cincinnati to Taos in 1947.”
At age 72, she hiked with her son up Half Dome at Yosemite National Park in California, an excursion she trained for “by walking briskly up the hilly streets in Arlington with a knapsack loaded with books,” he said.
In addition to her son and daughter, Mrs. Cornelius leaves another daughter, Karen of Madison, Wis.; another son, Peter of Old Lyme, Conn.; two brothers, John Thoman of Rochester, N.Y., and Mark Thoman of Glen Ridge, N.J.; and three grandchildren.
A memorial dance in her honor will be held at 7 p.m. Sept. 21 in Nevins Hall in Framingham.
“Helene was a huge part of English country dancing, and the best way to remember her is to do the dances she loved with the members of her community, taught by the people she worked with, and played by the musicians she knew so well and had supported for so long,” Foster said. “Her passing marks the end of an era. I expect a lot of people will be there, and I certainly will.”Laurie D. Willis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.