Jeffrey Mildenstein, the youngest of 7 children born to Harley and LaVonne Mildenstein, grew up in Ida Grove, IA. His older siblings remember him as a natural performer even as a toddler. The whole family was entertained watching him dancing in his diapers to the music of the Lawrence Welk television show. By the time Jeffrey got to school, he was such a ham in kindergarten that he seemed to spend more time disciplined in the hallway than in his kindergarten class. But it was his incredible impersonations, from people in the church choir to Topo Gigio on the Ed Sullivan show that were really entertaining and even got his siblings into trouble just for watching him.
After a wrestling injury in middle school, Jeffrey followed his older sisters to dance class with their teacher, Mary Lea. Jeffrey was natural mover and discovered his great passion for dancing. Mary Lea recognized his talent and brought him to jazz dance master, Gus Giordano in Chicago. At age 16, he moved to Evanston where Giordano’s company was based to begin training with Gus in earnest, eventually becoming a principal dancer with Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago. One of his featured roles was performing a duet with his friend and fellow company member Julie Walder. A televised performance of The Rehearsal with their starring duet earned the Giordano Company a coveted Emmy Award.
In 1982, Zoe Sealy commissioned him to set a work on the Minnesota Jazz Dance Company. Jeffrey created “Crimes of Passion”, a high energy, aggressive, pop-punk powerhouse of a piece to a score by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and Queen. The MJDC dancers loved it. Unfortunately, there is no existing video of this work.
Fellow company member, Meribeth Kisner remembers Jeffrey’s days with the Giordano company in this way: Jeffery was a child and a wise old man locked in one body. His energy and joy were endless. When he came to Gus's he was very young. He had no money and his dance wear was full of holes and tears (not in the fashionable sense). He was amazingly flexible for a boy. But it was his childlike joy for dance that really shone through. Gus saw it immediately and began to mentor this beautiful young man with the long, wild, blonde hair. When he danced he tossed it it like the mane of a horse. It was wonderful to watch him grow into a magnificent dancer as he matured. No one danced like Jeffery. He saw and interpreted it his own way and it was beautiful. He lived and danced fully. He once told me he believed he wouldn't be on this earth long. Very prescient. He choreographed "On the Corner" for Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago. It was the story of a young prostitute who is looking for love--any kind of love. She yearns for human compassion and connection. It was an enormous success and a mainstay in the repertoire. Jeffery was one of the main interpreters of the Giordano style. He was passionate and hot headed. He was a pleasure to dance with.
In 1987-89, Jeffrey was a visiting guest artist in residence at Western Kentucky University (WKU) where he taught jazz dance and also choreographed. He continued to teach and choreograph until deep into his illness, seemingly beyond the point his body was capable of working. Natural Woman was the last work he set and he was desperate to finish it before his energy gave out. Meribeth Kisner, the Giordano dancer who knew him from the beginning of his career, was with him near the end of his life. She remembered, “All he talked about was dancing with Gus and with Gus’s company. No matter his situation, as usual, Jeffrey charmed every nurse in the hospital. I miss him every day.”
WKU supports a Jeffrey Mildenstein Scholarship in his honor, for students showing a high level of dance ability.
Jeffrey Mildenstein died of AIDS at the Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville in 1989. He was 32 years old.