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Smooth moves and poetry contribute to a full life

Thane Cornell wasn't sure that his Navy uniform would be enough to attract women when he was stationed in Hawaii in the early 1950s. So, just in case, he spent his military pay on dance lessons and instruction in massage therapy.

It paid off. Not only did he have a busy social life during those military days, but he also found a career.

Cornell, 66, and his wife, Susan, 50, teach dancing, self-defense, weight control and drama at their business in St. Petersburg, Visible Changes Day Spa and Weigh-In Center. He also teaches several dance classes (ballroom, partners and country line dancing) at St. Petersburg Junior College.

In addition to that, he teaches dance to school and church youth groups. And he recites poetry at the public library and for service organizations.

Cornell calls his literary performances Poetry Theatre.

"I never read poetry publicly," Cornell said. "With the use of my drama training and experience and my programed memory techniques, I recite. Always recite. I compare the Poetry Theatre to Shakespearean players of old. They never read their parts. They memorized and dramatically acted them out. We always give people in the audience an opportunity to present their poetry after I finish. However, they must contact me early so we can help them prepare."

The next performance of the Poetry Theatre will begin at 1 p.m. May 10, Mother's Day, at the Sunshine Center, 330 Fifth St. N, St. Petersburg. Another is scheduled for noon May 20 at Rio Vista Presbyterian Church, 600 83rd Ave. N. They are open to the public.

After most literary performances, Cornell gives dance demonstrations for the audience and often invites members to participate.

Cornell was born in New York City but grew up in New Port Richey, where he and his mother moved when he was 6.

He was discharged from the Navy in 1952 in California and stayed there to study drama at the Pasadena Playhouse. He also studied at the Spear Radio School and Geller Theater at Los Angeles City College.

In 1954 he got a part in Strategic Air Command, starring Jimmy Stewart.

"They needed someone with baseball experience for a part in a scene which included a baseball game," Cornell said. "From that point on and for nearly 10 years my dancing, drama and sports experience helped me to get parts in more than 150 movies. Dancing helped me get a part in Elvis Presley's G.I. Blues. I danced in some scenes and helped teach Elvis some steps he needed. My boxing experience helped me get a part in his Kid Galahad film. I did three films with Elvis."

His boxing experience helped him develop "boxerobics," one of several aerobic exercise programs he teaches.

"Boxerobics isn't designed to teach people physical aggression or self-defense," he said. "It uses some of the upper body and leg movements to exercise the body."

He spent nearly 10 years in the movie industry, performing as a bit actor, dancer and stuntman. But in 1964 he left California for New Port Richey to help his mother, who had a terminal illness.

After she died in 1966, he moved to Miami, where he met and married Susan. After their daughter, Pamela, was born, they moved to St. Petersburg.

His movie career wasn't over, however. In 1984, when Cocoon was being filmed in St. Petersburg, he was asked by director-producer Ron Howard to work on the choreography for a dance scene at the Coliseum. He played the ballroom dance director.

In 1995, one of Cornell's youth dance groups, City Lights, was asked to perform at the White House for President Clinton. City Lights is a Christian performance troupe from Bradenton made up of dancers ages 11 to 16. Cornell taught them the "Florida Twister," a country-western line dance he created.

He works long hours six days a week, but on Sundays, Cornell and his wife relax at home with their dog and four cats.

"We are very active in our church and believe in a day of rest," he said. "However, if my church or community need help, we will gladly give that time. Susan and I are blessed by God with good health and plenty of energy to do all we do. We feel proper food and regular exercise help keep us healthy and feeling young. We have turned that belief into a lifestyle, a livelihood and a way to share with our community."