The central work in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s 2023-24 season opener Light in the Dark is renowned choreographer Jennifer Archibald’s world premiere Sounds of the Sun. This documentary-based contemporary ballet celebrates the life and bravery of Florence Waren, a Jewish dancer who lived in Paris during World War II and worked with the French Resistance.
Florence Waren was a famous dancer in both France and Germany during World War II. Together with Frederic Apcar, she became part of one of the most popular ballroom dance teams in Europe – “Florence et Frederic.” After the occupation of Paris, Florence decided not to reveal her Jewish ancestry and to instead risk hiding in plain sight.
“She led a rather adventurous life,” her husband Stanley Waren told The New York Times after her death. “Wherever she went, she somehow became part of the scene, and people helped her and she helped them. She didn’t want anything from anybody except to work. She was really one of those natural-born performers who loved what she was doing.”
20 Facts About Florence Waren’s Heroic Life
- She was born Sadie Rigal in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1917, one of seven children.
- After seeing Ballet Russes as a child, Florence fell in love with dance and began taking lessons
- One of her lasting ballet memories was when a teacher hit her in the calf with a cane. Florence grabbed the cane and broke it and was then forced to buy the teacher a new one before being allowed back in class.
- She moved to France in 1938 and was hired as a dancer by the famous Bal Tabarin Music Hall in Paris, changing her name to Florence soon after.
- In 1939, she was offered a place in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, but World War II began before she could join.
- She was arrested held in an internment camp for several months in 1940 because she was South African, and therefore a British citizen (and as such a Nazi enemy alien).
- She and her dance partner Frederic Apcar often performed at the same clubs with world-renowned Édith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier.
- During the occupation of Paris, Florence frequently performed for German officers at the Bal Tabarin, while hiding her Jewish identity in the spotlight the entire time.
- She aided the French Resistance by hiding fellow Jews in her apartment, helping Jews find safe houses and smuggling supplies and guns.
- After a performance at a French POW camp in Germany, Florence illegally collected letters prisoners had written to their relatives and took them back to France to distribute.
- During the war, a French police officer covertly warned her that her house was going to be raided by the Nazis and that she needed to move the Jews that were hiding there.
- In 1944, Frederic rented a house in the suburbs to hide her and several other Jewish performers after learning Florence was to be arrested.
- Florence and Frederic saw American soldiers in tanks asking for directions to Paris in 1944 and followed them, witnessing the city’s liberation.
- In 1948, she met Stanley Waren, an actor, director and teacher, while performing at the Copacabana in New York.
- On their first date, Florence and Stanley went to a delicatessen and got into such a loud argument that they were thrown out.
- They were married in 1949 and Florence decided to leave “Florence et Frederic.”
- In New York, she began a new career, appearing in Broadway plays and on television, including The Ed Sullivan Show.
- From 1973 until 1983, she was a professor of theater and dance at New York City College, heading the department for part of that time
- She was a dance panelist on the New York State Council on the Arts.
- She died in New York City in 2012 at the age of 95
Banner Photo: Florence Warren with her dance partner Frederic Apcar | All photos courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum