Champion was born Marjorie Celeste Belcher in L.A. on September 2, 1919. Her father Ernest Belcher was a dance coach known as the “ballet master to movieland.” Marge started dancing under his tutelage, and even helped him teach a very young Shirley Temple.
Once recruited by Disney, Champion worked with the artists for one or two days every month across two years, for a fee of $10 per day. The animators used rotoscoping, a technique recently developed by the Fleischer brothers, which enabled them to trace over the footage of Champion’s movements.
“None of [the all-male animation team] had been a young girl or knew how a dress would do this or that or the other thing,” Champion later told the Archive of American Television.
She elaborated on her performance in an interview with the Los Angeles Times: “When Snow White was running through the forest and scared to death, they had ropes hanging from a clothesline so I would be pushing them aside. If there was a bed where Snow White had to go pray, they had a cot there so I could kneel beside it. It was always very rudimentary and very hot lights, because they wanted as strong a contrast as possible.”
Champion did not receive credit for her role — as she said, “The publicity department and Mr. Disney thought it would be dangerous to the movie” if she did. Nevertheless, she continued to work with the studio, even modeling for the stork in Dumbo.
While working on Snow White, she married Art Babbitt, one of the animators on the film. She was 17; he was 29. The marriage lasted less than three years as Champion felt the relationship had stifled her opportunity to pursue a dance career.
In 1947, she married Gower Champion, a dancer who had been taught by her father. The pair formed a professional partnership and found fame performing characterful, virtuoso dances on tv, in nightclubs, and on Broadway. They went on to appear in a string of MGM musicals, taking top billing in Everything I Have Is Yours. In 1957 they starred in their own sitcom, The Marge and Gower Champion Show.
The pair parted ways professionally in 1960 and divorced in 1973. Marge continued to act while gaining renown as a choreographer — she won an Emmy for her work on the tv movie Queen of the Stardust Ballroom. She also lectured and taught widely.
Champion is survived by her son Gregg and three grandchildren. Confirming her death, Gregg said, “She continued dancing as she aged into her hundredth year.”
For more about Champion’s life and work, read this essay by John Canemaker.