Walter Schalk comes from an era when a man’s ability to dance made him the most eligible bachelor in the room. It was a time when he could strut up to a couple in a club, ask the husband’s permission to dance with his wife, then cue the band and dazzle the whole room with his moves. He looked straight out of the Rat Pack, impeccably dressed with a showman’s smile and perfect hair. But Walter Schalk wasn’t all about wooing women with his moves—he went on to build a dance empire one step at a time.
Today, at eighty-years-old, Walter Schalk is no longer so light on his feet. Gout has seized his left leg and he labors, sometimes with a cane, as he walks through his massive estate in Wilton, Connecticut. “You know, I’ve only just started feeling old in the last two months,” he says. “Time just went by so fast. Been having a lot of fun.”
Schalk’s claim to fame is a dance school that he started nearly sixty years ago. At the height of its success, the school had upwards of 2,400 students. That number has since dipped to close to 1,200, a change he attributes to girls playing more sports, and, although he doesn’t admit this directly, perhaps to boys not thinking dance is so hip anymore. Nevertheless, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the whole state of Connecticut who doesn’t know the name Walter Schalk. To date, he estimates that 150,000 students have passed through his school, many going on to dance professionally. “Take a look here,” he says, digging out a business card from his wallet. “This is one of my most recent success stories.” On the back of the glossy card is a girl performing some kind of leap. “Today, she’s a Rockette,” he says proudly.
Schalk leads us down to his personal dance studio on the ground floor. Light pours in through floor-to-ceiling windows and reflects off mirrors and the hardwood floor. The studio looks out on an opulent man-made pond, complete with a fountain and a floating dock with a pergola. When I asked for directions earlier in the day, Schalk’s assistant told me, “The place sticks out like a sore thumb, you can’t miss it.” The town’s people have come to call the estate “Wally’s World,” and even from the inside, this description rings true. A giant white marlin is mounted over the fireplace, and Schalk notes that the record-breaking trophy was caught off the coast of Nantucket, on light tackle no less. On a folding table in the center of the room is a pile of black and white photos, and he walks over and begins flipping through them casually.
“I haven’t seen these in, well, I don’t even know how long,” he mutters to himself. “Here’s me on the Ed Sullivan Show. You can see Ed right there with his hands on his hips. And here’s me with my dance partner in competition. Look how skinny I was.” The photos hark back to a golden era in dance: not so much bell- bottoms and John Travolta, but tuxedos and Gene Kelly. Schalk performed on Saturday evening television specials in his teens, often opening for acts like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Looking back in time through the photos, I can almost hear the ice clinking in Dean Martin’s scotch glass, the muffled clapping of Ed Sullivan’s audience, and the unshakably cool timbre of Frank Sinatra serenading the crowd.
Schalk was the son of two hardworking German immigrants. His father was a skilled tool and die maker who was short on words, and even shorter on compliments. At the age of nine, Schalk started taking dance classes with his friends under the direction of a World War II veteran. As the story goes, the veteran was an aspiring dancer, until the war left him partially crippled and dashed his dreams of ever becoming the next Fred Astaire. So instead, he molded Schalk and the other students into a formidable dance troupe, eventually making them regulars on national television.
Despite this early taste of fame and fortune, Schalk considered dance just a hobby, and took a job in advertising out of high school. His career in letterpress printing was off and running when President Truman announced America’s military intervention in Korea, eventually leading Schalk to enlist. Except, as fate would have it, his tour of duty was not spent in Korea, but in Germany. A gifted soccer player, Schalk was sent to Europe to play on the US Infantry’s German-American Friendship team, a public relations outfit promoting reconciliation after World War II. So it was that in the early fifties, a young Walter Schalk was stationed in post-Nazi Germany, meeting relatives for the first time and scoring goals for the Stars and Stripes.
“What do you want me to do, a pirouette?” Schalk jokes, when the photographer asks him to strike a dance pose for the camera. With his bum leg, he looks completely lacking in grace. Even walking seems labored and very awkward. “How ‘bout I dance with a partner? That might be better,” he suggests. “Charlie! Charlie! Send out Kelly.” A svelte dancer dressed in black enters from stage left, one of Schalk’s top instructors. “Ok hon, let’s show these guys how to dance.” The dancer slips into Schalk’s arms and he dips her with the panache of a prizefighter, one hand under the small of her back, the other clasping hers high overhead. Their legs, arms and shoulders move perfectly in sync, as if the dancer was Schalk’s shadow just before noon. In two steps, this eighty-year-old man becomes the smoothest thing on earth.
Of course, he’s had lots of practice, not just in competition, but also in the field. When Schalk returned from the war, he danced in clubs and bars, making women swoon and men envy him. Soon his buddies from work took notice and asked him to teach them how to dance.
Then he taught their wives to dance. Then he taught their children to dance, and the Walter Schalk School of Dance was born. The school spread across Connecticut, and even made its way on to Nantucket, where today Schalk owns two homes and a boat, Let’s Dance II.
“I came to Nantucket when they opened the boat basin. What was that? 1967 or ‘68?” he says. “I lived on my boat right there on Straight Wharf.” Schalk has since purchased two homes on the Miacomet Golf Course, and spends June to September on the island. Back in his early days on Nantucket, he renovated the ‘Sconset Casino and held summer dance classes there, and his students often performed in front of the gazebo on Straight Wharf accompanied by a live band. “But then I realized I was working during my vacation,” he says. “So I closed the school after six or seven seasons.”
Today, Schalk spends his summer days fishing and playing golf in his backyard. And on some nights, if the mood strikes him right and if the band is playing on key, Walter Schalk will dance. So if a man with perfect hair and a showman’s smile asks you to dance, let him lead. It will be a night you won’t soon forget