Gwen Delle Giacobbe (1939–2013)

February 28, 2013

Dancers who crossed paths with Gwen Delle Giacobbe say they will never forget her indefatigable attention to detail. Once a principal with the New Orleans–based Delta Festival Ballet, and a longtime teacher at the Giacobbe Academy of Dance, she saw generations of young ballerinas blossom into soloists and principals. As much a mentor as an instructor, Giacobbe was firm in the studio—but her beneficent nature would shine through every Nutcracker season, when she always made sure her students’ tiaras were perfectly pinned in place as they made their way to the stage.


At left: Gwen Delle Giacobbe in
Capriccio (1968) by Richard Englund, Courtesy Delta Festival Ballet


“Every time I’ve gone home to dance, she had been right there supporting me,” said Janessa Touchet, who is now a principal with the Cincinnati Ballet. Like many of Giacobbe’s successful students, Touchet returned last year as a guest artist for The Nutcracker. She played the Sugar Plum Fairy for Delta Festival Ballet in Slidell, where Giacobbe directed the Giacobbe Academy Studio. In New Orleans, the role was danced by New York City Ballet principal Janie Taylor.

“She was an amazing influence,” Touchet said, adding that she dedicated her opening night of Romeo and Juliet to Giacobbe this past Valentine’s Day. “I remember I was a trouble maker when I was younger and dreaded tap and jazz classes. Sometimes she would kick me out. I always thought she hated me,” she added. “But I guess she knew I had something when I was younger, and that’s why she was so hard on me. And when I came home to dance, she told me, ‘I’m so proud of you. I love you so much.’ It made me cry.”


At the age of 73, Giacobbe died from cancer on February 7. A lifelong New Orleanian, she provided inspiration for scores of young dancers living in Louisiana. She taught ballet—especially pointe—as well as jazz and tap, from 1963 to just last fall.


Giacobbe trained at the Giacobbe Academy of Dance, where she met her future husband, Joseph Giacobbe. (His two older sisters had founded the  academy in 1943.) During a two-year stint in New York, she studied at the schools of the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre and continued to refresh her technique with summer courses in New York. As a principal with Delta Festival Ballet, Giacobbe brought grace and energy to roles such as the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty and the slave princess in Polovtsian Dances. She also danced in productions of the New Orleans Opera and, along with her husband, with the flamenco company Teresa y su Compania Espanol. 


Giacobbe remained a performer throughout her life. With makeup and hair always in place, she was stunning. She taught her dancers to pay as much attention to their appearance as they did to their form. “She said you never know who you’re going to run into so you should always look your best,” Touchet said. “Being older, now I understand that. You’re always representing yourself.”


Along with Touchet and Taylor, Giacobbe’s notable students include Jerel Hilding, a former member of the Joffrey Ballet who is now a professor at the University of Kansas; Denise Pons, a former soloist with the Boston Ballet and one of the eight founding members of the White Oak Project; Laurie Volny, now dance captain of Phantom of the Opera; and Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Laura Gilbreath (who wrote a Why I Dance in October). 

The overwhelming responses to her obituary notice in serve as testament to how loved she was by her students. “Gwen Delle was such in inspiration to so many,” wrote Pons. “She will be missed, but she will be with me in my heart and soul as I pass on the knowledge and love of dance that she ingrained in me.” —Della Hasselle


Gwen Delle and Joseph Giacobbe in
Raymonda, by Rochelle Zide-Booth, 1972. Courtesy DFB.