To call this dance teacher, a character, is an understatement.
After 60 years of teaching dance to nearly everyone in Old Irving Park. Geri Mroz Panicko shows no sign of stopping.
“Age is just a number, you can ask anyone out there, I love birthdays, and I celebrate for a month straight, all January. I’m January 25th.”
You heard correctly. Today is Ms. Geri’s 78th birthday. When we caught up with her over the summer she was still movin’ and shaking with kids a fourth of her age.
The same way she did when she opened this studio in 1953, in the same building on Milwaukee Avenue at age 21.
I wanted to be a dancer so bad and my mom said no, you have to take piano first. So I took piano for a year and at the end of the year my mom said I think you should dance because you play terrible.”
And dance she did! She bought the business for $300 with money her dad borrowed. She paid it off in two years. She started with 30 students. Right now she has about 100 dancers– and this hoofer keeps up with the times.
“I’m up on everything I even teach,” Geri said, “Hip-hop, Hawaiian, Tahitian and belly dancing. I’m really good at that.”
Ms. Geri, as her student’s call her, treats everyone like family. Well, they actually are family. She’s taught generation after generation of girls and boys.
“Everyone on the North side knows Ms. Geri. If you ever grew up here, you either took dance classes or you know somebody who did.”
Vicky Cherry said “I danced with her when I was seven and when my daughter was born, well, I never left and when my daughter was born, she started dancing.”
Her daughter Abbey, is now 14.
“And I love Ms. Geri so much” Abbey said. “And, like I said, it’s a second home so it’s really comforting always to be here, second home. Like all of the people here are like family.”
The love Geri has for her dancers is genuine. She knows them all by name, even their parents, and pet’s names. For some she even knows their grade point average.
Ms. Geri’s kindness goes a long way. Down through the years, she’s given away lessons for free to those less fortunate.
Ms. Carol Topping, also a dance teacher, said “through the years she’s taught individuals with disabilities, she’s taught blind students, she’s taught deaf students. She adapts to them.”
Her roughest time was last year, that’s when her beloved husband Ed died of Leukemia. It was tough for her to talk about it to us. He was the love of her life.
“He was just perfect,” she said, “You could ask anybody. Everybody .loved him he had a big heart– that’s how he was.”
But even his death hasn’t stopped her from dancing. Her energy is through the roof.
“If I could sell that, I’d be a millionaire,” Geri said, “Just sell my energy my kids always say, mom you gotta slow down, but I figure if I slow down, then I’ve given up.”
And she’s not ready to do that. But she knows when it’s time, she’ll do it dancing.
“So I want to probably die here, I’ll do a tour jete, a cartwheel, split and bouing– that’s a good way though.”
Ms. Geri– She’s one of Chicago’s Very Own.