By Deb Silverthorn
Dot Heller, who will turn 90 in February, moves and speaks with a dancer’s grace. The nearly lifelong ballroom dancer and longtime teacher of the art glows as she speaks of her life as “an absolute gift; there’s nothing I would change.”
Born in Brooklyn, where she lived until she was about 9 years old, Dot lived “two lives,” said her son Reid. “She was a New Yorker and then once the family moved to Norfolk, Virginia, she became the Southern belle she’s been ever since. She has the magic; she always has.”
Dot and her older brother Gene — who lovingly called her “Kid” until he passed away in 2009 — were the children of Pauline and Philip Cohen.
Dot’s mother had a beautiful voice and her father was a professional U.S. Navy clarinetist; the Cohen household was always filled with music. Dot began taking ballroom dance classes before she was a teen and she’s never stopped enjoying the swirling and twirling across the dance floor.
The Cohen family moved to Norfolk, where Dot’s father, who had been a post office employee to get through the depression, joined the family jewelry business.
A graduate of Maury High School, Dot was president of her B’nai B’rith Girls chapter with memories of going to the AZA dances where she and her brother would have everyone watching as they “cut a rug.” At 15, Dot worked at Lerner’s Shops; at 16, she started teaching dance at Arthur Murray Dance Studio.
She followed her brother to the College of William & Mary, where he had been a pitcher on the baseball team and where she earned undergraduate and graduate degrees. Afterward, she worked as a high school and college guidance counselor.
One evening, at Burrough’s Drive-In restaurant, where Dot and her friends gathered regularly, Selwyn “Sel” Heller, the “most good-looking man I’d ever seen,” she says, walked in. “I gave him my number and when I got home the phone was ringing.
“After 10 minutes I asked what he wanted and he said, ‘Just to talk,’” she says with a giggle of a young lady still in love. “I told him ‘Next time you call, you’d better mean business.’ He called the next day and asked me out. We went out, he was fabulous and he knocked my socks off. Five months later he gave me a ring.”
The Hellers were married May 16, 1954 at her aunt’s home in Washington, D.C., by Rabbi Balfour Brickner (who would become a leading rabbi of the Reform movement). It was an intimate day of immediate family providing memories everlasting.
Sel, who worked in insurance and who was a radar operator in the U.S. Navy when the two met, soon left the service and went to work for Lerner’s Shops, a career that would take the couple and then their sons Reid and Rik to live in Tampa, Atlanta and ultimately Dallas.
Once retired, Sel bought a MAACO: Auto Body & Painting in Duncanville while Dot taught at Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Dallas and also worked for more than 20 years as human resources manager for Roger Horchow’s Horchow Collection. She was a model at the Dallas Apparel Mart; she was then introduced to the idea of real estate and property ownership and for years built her portfolio.
Until the pandemic “break,” Dot continued to teach ballroom dancing, as she had wherever the family lived, adding classes at the Aaron Family JCC and the Cooper Fitness Center to her resume. Scotty Esquibel, group exercise and pilates director at Cooper Clinic has worked with Dot for 25 years.
“Dot was already here when I got here and she is just an exquisite teacher and such a sweet and kind person,” he said. “She is ageless in every way, and it’s been very special for us to have her, and her expertise, as part of our program.
“I love dancing,” said Dot. “It’s like breathing to me.”
The Hellers built a home at Hillcrest and Arapaho, where Dot still lived until moving to The Legacy Midtown Park in 2022. Members of Temple Emanu-El and Temple Shalom, they both served on the board of the Dallas chapter of the American Jewish Committee and they donated time and money to Jewish Family Service of Greater Dallas.
The Hellers, married for more than 60 years when Sel passed away in 2014, proudly watched their family grow as Reid and Rik married Karen and Peggy. The branches of the family tree extended with the grandchildren and the next generation too: Ilana (Ariel) Nishli and their children Ezra, Shaya, Asa and Riva; Naomi (Ariel) George and their daughter Itiya; Isaac (Rachel) Heller and their children Ava, Leah and Gavi; Lauren (Jonathan) Berk and their children Alma, Elias and Josephine; and Anna (Brett) Seidler and their daughter Sadie Jane.
Reid says, “Wherever we lived, Mom would start over, find friends and make life wonderful. Our parents were in love, the ‘old-fashioned’ kind of marriage and they, who came from difficult lives early on, ultimately represented the best of their era and what American life could offer.”
His brother echoes many sentiments.
“As kids, we never lived anywhere for much more than two years, but Mom always settled us in,” said Rik. “Just being together, growing up and today, is the best. She’s always been something special.”
Memories for all include traveling the world — as the “11 Hellers” — three generations making their way from the Astronomy Ranch in New Mexico and Colorado to cruises, trips to Alaska, Costa Rica, Honduras and Jamaica and traversing the major cities and backroads of Italy. One of the last family trips, visiting Dot’s Norfolk stomping grounds, is forever etched in heart and mind.
“I feel like the luckiest person alive and every day I say ‘Thank you,’” said Dot, walking the halls of her apartment, sharing her life’s photos and memorabilia including a project of her father’s genealogy tracing back, thus far, to 1789. “Our history, my beautiful husband, our kids, family, work … all of it is a blessing.”
When reflecting on life and looking forward to more dancing and more family time, the sparkle in Dot’s eye brightens as she quotes a former employee, “It’s been a little bit of heaven.”