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Death of Estelle Joan Sommers, “Empress of Dance”

March 21, 1994

“Estelle Joan Sommers was a genuine early embodiment of the contemporary woman.”  So writes Meira Eliash-Chain in describing the life of Sommers, an accomplished businesswoman and a lifelong devotee of the art of the dance. 

Growing up in poverty, Estelle Goldstein was the youngest of seven children raised by a widowed mother.  The household was often the beneficiary of charities, but the young Estelle had ballet and tap classes after school to nurture her.  She was an avid student who took night courses in business and law.  Married in 1942 and the mother of three daughters, in 1947 she converted a retail store in Cincinnati, Ohio into a dance-supply business, where she also designed dance costumes.  She divorced in 1962, the same year she moved to Manhattan.  In December of that year, she married Ben Sommers, the head of Capezio Ballet Makers, the theatrical shoe company. 

Her marriage to Sommers, described in dance circles as "the romance of the decade," continued until his death in 1985.  The two collaborated on arts and business projects, including the introduction of the new fabric, Antron-Lycra/Spandex, into Capezio’s bodywear.  She was the owner-manager of Capezio Fashion Shop from 1964 to 1975; designer-owner of Estar Ltd., from 1969 to 1979; and vice president and head administrator for six Capezio Dance-Theatre Shops nationwide, from 1970 to 1994. From 1975, she co-managed the stores with her daughter Gayle Miller, who became a partner.

After her husband’s death, she became a champion and supporter of arts organizations around the world.  She joined the overseers’ board of the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass., which named a studio in honor of her and her husband.  From 1979, she served as the United States chair of the International Committee for the Dance Library of Israel, which presented her with its Documents of Dance Award in 1993.  She also served on the boards of the Dance Notation Bureau, the Joffrey Ballet, and the Yard, a summer choreographic workshop on Martha's Vineyard.

Sources: “Estelle Sommers, 74, a Patron of the Arts and Capezio Owner,” New York Times, March 23, 1994; “Estelle Joan Sommers,” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia; “Estelle Joan Sommers,” Jewish Women’s Archive.

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Estelle Joan Sommers
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Designer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist, Estelle Joan Sommers (1919–1994).

Photo from the Dance Library of Israel.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Death of Estelle Joan Sommers, “Empress of Dance” ." (Viewed on January 18, 2019) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/mar/21/1994/death-of-estelle-joan-sommers-empress-of-dance>.

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