Matt Mattox (1921-2013)

April 30, 2013

One of the most sought-after jazz dancers in Hollywood, Matt Mattox also had a significant career as a choreographer and teacher in Europe. He died on Feb. 18 in France.

Mattox created a movement vocabulary that infused a mix of ballet, modern, tap, and flamenco with a propulsive energy. He preferred to describe his method as “freestyle.” During the 10 years he was part of the Hollywood scene, he appeared in almost 20 films, including Seven Brides for Seven Brothers—in which he dazzled viewers with his death-defying leaps in the barn-raising dance—and The Band Wagon.

Mattox began studying ballet, tap, and ballroom dance at age 11 at the Fox Figueroa Theater in Los Angeles. Among his teachers were tappers Willie Covan and Louis DaPron, whose lessons Mattox credited as helping form the foundation of his freestyle technique. His ballet teachers included Ernest Belcher, Eugene Loring, and Nico Charisse. It was Charisse’s wife, Cyd, who helped Mattox get his start in Hollywood after he returned from a stint in the Army Air Forces during World War II. Though his initial focus was classical dance (he was actually once invited to join Ballet Theatre), his work in New York with jazz pioneer Jack Cole inspired Mattox to develop his own method. Mattox opened a school there and worked in theater and for TV shows like The Bell Telephone Hour. He also choreographed almost 30 ballets and served as artistic director of the New Jersey Ballet in 1967 after closing his New York school.

In 1970, Mattox moved to London to teach and in 1974 founded his company, JazzArt. He eventually moved to Perpignan in the south of France, where he opened the École de Dance with his third wife, Martine Limeul Mattox. According to Bob Boross, an assistant professor of dance at Radford University in Virginia who studied with him, Mattox continued to teach a weekly class at his studio, despite increasing frailty, up until last year. “He always said, ‘I’m going to die on the dance floor,’ ” says Boross.

Fortunately, a small part of his legacy, as both a performer and teacher, can be seen on YouTube.