It took Lester Hillier just a few hours of dancing to know he loved it.
The Davenport man has retired after teaching 59 years at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in downtown Davenport.
Hillier officially retired on March 4. The new owner is Wesley Arnold, 38, who spent the last 10 years operating an Arthur Murray Dance Studio in the Detroit area. The studio manager is Danyelle Pinkerton, who worked with Arnold in Michigan.
The pair bought the franchise from Hillier, who began working there in 1954. At one time, Hillier owned five Arthur Murray studios in Iowa, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan.
The dance studio at 221 Brady St. has changed little over the years. Arnold said currently they have about 30 students, ranging in age from the early 20s to past 70. Lessons run $120, which includes a private lesson and group lessons, he said.
There are tall stairs from Brady Street to the studio. The large ballroom has mirrors on both sides of the walls. Down the hall is a place where trophies and awards are displayed. Another set of stairs leads to two small ballrooms for lessons.
The studio offers all types of partner dance styles, including ballroom, Latin, country-western, swing and salsa.
The long career
Hillier’s career began with a night on the town.
“In 1954, I had just been discharged from the Navy Air Force and arrived home in the Quad-Cities,” he said. “I decided to visit one of my favorite nightclubs. During this time, all-night clubs had dancing and live music.”
He noticed a friend dancing quite well and knew that neither of them had been able to do so in high school. It turned out his friend had been taught by a woman who was teaching at the Arthur Murray Studio in Houston. Hillier said he told the woman that he “had always wanted to dance because all girls liked to dance, and I loved girls.”
“Well, one thing led to another, and at 3 o’clock in the morning, in their living room, she taught me the Arthur Murray magic step and it was easy and fun,” Hillier said. “I found I really enjoyed teaching others to have the fun I got from dancing, and this led to a career.”
The Davenport studio and Hillier have won every top award the franchise dance company has to offer, including the first-ever studio of the year award — presented by Arthur Murray himself in 1975 — for Hillier’s Springfield studio. “The Davenport studio has won first place in 26 of 31 international dance festivals,” he said.
And 17 years ago, he hired a receptionist named Linda who later became his wife and an instructor at the studio.
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Altogether, Hillier said he has emceed and attended more than 2,600 dance parties; taught and danced more than 130,000 hours, and taught the largest dance class ever at the University of Iowa with 750 students at one time. He also taught the largest swing dance class in Davenport with 450 students at one time, ages 13 to 70, held at the Col Ballroom.
Over the years, many things have changed, Hillier said, especially the dance steps. When disco came on the scene and more solo dancing, the studios suffered.
“When I started, there were 425 Arthur Murray studios,” he said. “Today, we are back up to 251. Young people really took to those types of dances by themselves. The number of studios went down to 81 back in the 1960s.”
He said far more women have wanted to learn to dance than men.
“For a marriage, dancing is one of the greatest things to do,” said Hillier, who just turned 80. “A lot of couples I taught, the wife would tell me, ‘I wanted him to dance for at least 25 years.’ And most of those men later told me, ‘If I had known it is this easy, I would have done this earlier.’ ”
Pinkerton, who has taught for seven years, said moving to the Quad-Cities was a good decision.
“It was a good opportunity,” she said. “We came for a visit and absolutely loved the Davenport area and decided it was a good move. Our ultimate goal is to have two to three studios in the area.”