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Patsy Swayze dies at 86; dance teacher was Patrick Swayze's mother

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The note Patsy Swayze tucked in her son Don's suitcase was simple but meaningful.

It was 1980, and Don had just moved to California to pursue an acting career. He was sleeping on his older brother Patrick's couch and scared to death of the prospect of auditions.

Then he found the note from his mom. It began, "Donny," and followed with a laundry list of all the awards he'd ever received.

Remember when you won the second grade spelling bee? Remember the Pee Wee World Series in baseball?

"She knew I needed a little more encouragement," Don Swayze, a character actor who has appeared in many movies and TV shows, said in a phone interview. "It was a little thing I needed when I was having doubts."

Patsy Swayze — a dance teacher and choreographer whose most famous students included her son Patrick and "Fame" director Debbie Allen — died Monday at her Simi Valley home after a stroke on Sept. 8, Don Swayze said. She was 86.

She choreographed the 1980 film "Urban Cowboy" and worked with John Travolta on the movements of the two-step. Other credits include "Liar's Moon" and "One Last Dance."

Her former students include Broadway star Tommy Tune and actors Randy Quaid and Jaclyn Smith.

All five of Swayze's children became dancers and actors — most famously Patrick, who trained in her studio and struck stardom in 1987 with "Dirty Dancing." Patrick Swayze died of pancreatic cancer in 2009 at age 57.

Feisty and demanding, Swayze devoted herself to nurturing talent and potential.

"I love watching people develop strong bodies and a sense of self-worth," Swayze told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. "To see the child blossom, that's the thrill of teaching."

Yvonne Helen Karnes, nicknamed "Patsy," was born Feb. 7, 1927, and grew up in Houston. Her father was a World War I pilot and a geologist. Her mother was a nurse.

At age 10, Swayze was hit by a car. She enrolled in dance classes for therapy, eventually training in classical ballet and jazz dance.

While in high school, Patsy met and married Jesse Wayne Swayze, a mechanical engineer. He had a sense of humor; she was serious about homework, behavior and posture.

Swayze founded and directed the Houston Jazz Ballet Company and was a resident choreographer at a number of Houston institutions. She also taught dance at the University of Houston and ran an independent studio, outfitted with a swimming pool, two dance studio rooms, trampolines and gymnastics equipment.

She was known as a firm disciplinarian who had no qualms about sending any girl who showed up to class wearing makeup to scrub off in the bathroom.

That studio was where Patrick Swayze met his future wife, Lisa Niemi, another of his mother's students. Patrick Swayze spoke later of his mom's strictness — he felt she was harder on him than on anybody else. But after "Dirty Dancing," he realized why, Don Swayze said.

"She made sure he kept his nose to the grindstone and learned that technique," Don Swayze said. "She kept him down to Earth."

She was also adept at teaching herself. Called upon to work on "Urban Cowboy," Swayze knew little about country dancing. She headed out to country-style bars to learn the style.

In 1981, after the success of "Cowboy," Swayze moved to California. She planned to retire from teaching and focus on film work, but opened a dance studio in a Simi Valley shopping center that operated for more than two decades.

Her husband died of a heart attack in 1982; her daughter Vicky died in 1994.

Besides her son Don, she is survived by son Sean, daughter Bambi, and six grandchildren.

devin.kelly@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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