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Friends and Neighbors Mourn the Loss of Dancer, Community Gardener Robert Howard Skafte

'Somebody walks in and they can't afford coffee, he’ll just pour them a cup.'

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Robert Howard Skafte

The world had a little bit more beauty with Robert Howard Skafte in it. 

A ballet dancer, community gardener, tai chi practitioner, and friend of Minneapolis's Loring Park neighborhood, Skafte always had an open ear and a kind word for both friends and strangers.  

“Everybody on the street knows Robert,” says Deb Ervin, who befriended Skafte via the local theater and community garden scenes. “I've seen him countless times—somebody walks in and they can't afford coffee, he’ll just pour them a cup.” 

On December 8, while working at Oak Grove Grocery, Skafte was brutally assaulted and killed. He was 66. Now, friends and family are mourning his loss.

“The first word that comes to mind is ‘sparkle,’” says choreographer Patrick Scully of his friend. “That’s what comes to my mind when I think of Robert.” 

Born July 13, 1957 in Los Angeles, Robert Howard Skafte grew up in Arcadia, California, with his parents and four older sisters. His sister Patty Georges remembers her brother as sensitive. “He was a good kid,” she says.  

George says Skafte’s interest in ballet was sparked when he moved to Laguna Beach, and he continued his studies in Los Angeles. He trained in the early '80s at the Westside School of Dance, earning a positive review in the Los Angeles Times for his performance in The Nutcracker. From 1984 to 1994, he danced with Kansas City Ballet under the direction of Todd Bolender. A '92 review in the Kansas City Star described Skafte as having a "curiously abstract ardor." Another Kansas City Star review the same year described Skafte as "a gallant but vulnerable poet and a sure partner." 

Robert Skafte and Susan Manchak in Antony Tudor’s 'Lilac Garden,' 1991.Mershon & McDonald LLC

In the mid-’90s, Skafte moved to Minneapolis to dance with Ballet of the Dolls, founded by Myron Johnson. In their highly imaginative and stylized productions  he’d play Tennessee Williams, Salvador Dali, and Puck. “[Skafte] not only dances ardently but shows some skill as an actor” wrote Mike Steele in a 1995 Star Tribune review of Carmen

Alice Finwall joined Ballet of the Dolls around the same time as Skafte and was frequently paired with him. “He was absolutely riveting onstage,” she says, describing him as “a beautiful dancer with long lines and beautifully expressive movement in any role he was given.” 

“He taught me a lot about classical ballet partnering because he came from 10 years at Kansas City Ballet,” Finwall says. She would also dance with Skafte in her own choreographed works. “I really trusted him physically with my own body and weight,” she says. “I would throw myself at him, and I always knew he was there to catch any crazy maneuver that I wanted to try out with him.” 

Finwall also remembers Skafte’s generosity. “He always helped those in need,” she says. “Whether it was just a friendly conversation with perfect strangers, or for any of his friends who needed support emotionally, or for bigger tasks like, when he helped me clean out my father’s art studio—you didn’t have to ask, he would offer his help and would be there for anyone.” 

Choreographer Patrick Scully, who worked with Skafte on several pieces, says he first met him at the gym. “There is a particularly sweet culture of gay men at the gym who know each other and interact with each other,” Scully says. The last time he saw Skafte, they talked about his recent trip to New Mexico, the landscape there, and Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings. 

Robert Howard Skafte and SammyFacebook

In Minneapolis, Skafte developed an interest in gardening, food, and community. He co-founded Lasalle Community Gardens in 1997, and the Stevens Square Farmers Market in 2008. A few years later, he participated in the Master Gardener program through the University of Minnesota Extension program.

Christina Elías, a good friend of Skafte, remembers his kindness. 

“He was so brilliant,” Elías says. She’d often talk to her friend about philosophy, beauty, and art. “He was self-educated, well read, and cultured.”

The weekend before he died, Elías spoke to Skafte by phone while he was at the Walker Art Center. Skafte was sad because his dog, Sammy, had been very ill. On Monday, Skafte took Sammy to the vet. “Sammy was just riddled with cancer,” Elías says. “And he couldn't make the choice to put her down. He just didn't know what to do.” (A friend had Sammy put down shortly after Skafte’s death.)

“He is the definition of someone who builds community,” says Ervin of her friend. “If we can all be more like Robert, the world would be a better place. That's probably the best thing anybody could do to honor his memory—to think, ‘What would Robert do?’” 

There will be a public memorial for Skafte on Thursday, Dec. 28, from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Center for Performing Arts (3745 Pleasant Ave. S., Minneapolis).

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