- Associated Press - Sunday, December 21, 2014

MUSKOGEE, Okla. (AP) - Bob Cockle had the coolest job as a teen - taking tickets at Okmulgee movie theaters.

“I saw every movie that came out for four years. That was when they brought out three movies a week,” he said. “I always loved movies and getting exposed to them.”

His favorite movies were musicals.

“I always knew the musical numbers,” he said. “I always timed my work so I could see when the dance numbers came on.”

That interest blossomed into careers of dancing in New York City and teaching dance in Muskogee.

At 82, Cockle keeps busy with several interests, the Muskogee Phoenix (https://bit.ly/1szFulU ) reported. He has made videos of weddings and other events.

His latest hobby involved converting his dining room into a diner, complete with red vinyl booth seats and a tabletop juke box.

An electric train chugs past Colorado mountain scenes at the top of the Cockle diner. The setup was inspired by a recent family trip to Colorado. They rode the Durango & Silverton railroad and shot lots of pictures.

“They have a Durango & Silverton electric train, so I thought it would be nice to have the train going around the pictures,” he said.

Cockle teaches and dances part time with his wife, Isabel, in a tiny studio next to their home.

“I’m still working on my dancing,” he said. “When I no longer am able to dance, I will sit down a lot.”

Bob Cockle wasn’t the first dancer in his family.

“My parents were ballroom and square dance people,” he said. “They belonged to a dance club. Every Saturday night, they danced. They did that for years. They had actually a place on Okmulgee Lake where they would go. A carpenter built a place. His family liked square dancing, so they built this cabin on the lake with a big dance floor. They’d take pies, cakes and dance the night away.”

Cockle recalled going to these dances in the 1940s.

“They did the waltz, fox trot, square dances. They had a caller. No alcohol,” he said with a laugh. “They just went to a dance and that was it.”

He recalled discovering more theatrical dancing, such as tap, when he was in school.

“A kid I knew was taking some tap lessons,” he said. “I started taking tap. When I started doing that, I started doing stuff all around Okmulgee.”

He said that first spark of wanting to dance professionally came when he was in junior high or high school. He recalled that, by then, his dancing was good enough to keep others from discouraging or teasing him.

“I never had anyone say ‘Man, you better not do that,’” he said.

Cockle said his parents also encouraged him.

“They always said ‘Do what you want to do,’ and that was it,” he said. “That was what I wanted to do. Go to New York and pursue dancing.”

Cockle recalled hitchhiking from Stillwater to Oklahoma City to study dancing on the weekends. As a student at Oklahoma State University, he was active in the school’s entertainment bureau.

While he was in college, Cockle’s interest in ballroom dancing and square dancing passed.

“It was just the theatrical forms of dancing by then,” he said.

Once he got out of the Army in 1955, Cockle headed to New York.

“I was in New York two weeks after I was out of the Army,” he said. “I was enrolled in all the professional dancing schools in New York. I pre-enrolled when I was in the Army, got all the brochures.”

He said he began studying the day he got into town.

“I was studying from 9 o’clock in the morning to 9 o’clock at night,” he said. “Under the GI Bill, I studied acting and singing through the American Theater Wing.”

Cockle said he did not set out to be a star.

“I just wanted to study and work as a dancer,” he said. “It never entered my brain to be a star. Most people I knew were there just to work and study.”

He studied different dancing styles at different studios.

“Each teacher had something different to offer,” he said. “They had a bunch of schools. They were open day and night, Sundays. They were open Sundays. They had the very best teachers. A lot of my teachers were from Russia.”

He studied eccentric dancing, comedy dancing - similar to the “rubber legs” way Ray Bolger flopped around as the “Wizard of Oz” scarecrow. Cockle said the key to eccentric dancing is to be “very limber.”

“The guy I took from was very short,” he recalled. “He and his wife were in vaudeville together.”

Cockle took a lot of ballet classes, tap and jazz.

He said he made a living with nightclub acts.

“I didn’t make a lot of money, but I didn’t starve,” he said. “I was never out of money.”

He said he stayed in New York about 14 years.

“I met Isabel at a dancing school,” he said. “We began to work at night clubs.”

A series of strikes brought the Cockles to Muskogee in the 1960s.

Cockle said he and his new bride had opened a dancing school.

“And they were having strikes in New York. The teachers were on strike. The subways were on strike. The policemen were on strike. Even the sanitation, the grave-diggers, all the city employees were on strike,” he said. “They were going to build a housing project where our dancing school was. So we both agreed to move out of New York.”

The Cockles moved to Muskogee, where they opened a dance school in 1969.

“We had a lot of kids pass through the school,” Cockle said. “One year in a recital, we had three generations do a dance number - grandma, mother and daughter.”

The school grew quickly, he recalled.

“The school doubled every year until we had too many people,” he said. “We taught 3-year-olds to 80-year-olds.”

The couple taught all different styles of dancing - tap, jazz, ballet.

“Dancing is an art form, and it reflects society, so it has changed in that respect,” he said. “Hip-hop is in. If the music changes, your dance is going to change.”

Cockle said he and his wife used to go to dance conventions each year to keep up with styles and trends.

“Teachers would bring in new dancers, instructors,” he said. “We belonged to Dance Masters. That’s probably the largest dance association.”

However, the basic elements of dancing have not changed.

“Ballet is a basic dance for everything,” Cockle said. “Ballet is hardest to teach because you’ve got to actually change your body. Your body has to adjust to the ballet form, turning out the hips in a turn-out position. It’s a lot of study into forms. It takes a long time.”

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Information from: Muskogee Phoenix, https://www.muskogeephoenix.com


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