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Killer Joe Piro

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The Entertainers by: The Queen Mary Archivist

Date added: 4 Oct 2017

Frank "Killer Joe" Piro (2 March 1921 - 5 February 1989) was a dance instructor to high society and popularized steps of the discotheque era of the 1960s and 1970s.

Piro was born in East Harlem, the son of an Italian tailor. He described himself as 'skinny and ugly', and, to meet girls, began dancing. Piro got hooked on dance by frequenting the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem in his late teens.

He won his moniker at the dance contests that were a big feature of the New York City scene in the 1940s. The "Killer Joe" nickname comes from a supposed ability to wear out one partner after the other on the dance floor. It has been suggested that the John Travolta role in "Saturday Night Fever" owes more than a little to Piro.

After the war, Piro started winning dance contests at the Palladium Ballroom in Manhattan. Piro moved on to serve as master of ceremonies at the Palladium, into which thousands of dancers would pack each night.

In the early fifties, he opened his own studio on 54 West 55th Street in Manhattan, where many in New York's high society came to take dance lessons. Invariably keeping a step ahead of trends, over the decades he taught what would become the mainstays of the discothèque scene: the Mambo, the Cha-cha and the Merengue, then the Twist and later the Frug, the Frog, the Watusi, and the Hully Gully.

His students included the Duke of Windsor, Sita Devi Gaekwar - Maharani of Baroda, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Ray Bolger, Luci Baines Johnson, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and, by 1965, more than a million other Americans via the Emmy award winning TV show 'I Like Things The Way They Are’.

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