June Finch, a celebrated member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company with deep roots in Provincetown, died peacefully in New York City on June 18, 2021 after a short illness. She was 81.
The daughter of Ernest Gebelein and Roberta Seaver, June was born on June 13, 1940 in Taunton, where she grew up. After studying at the local community college, June transferred to Sarah Lawrence College, where she majored in dance. After graduation, she took a job as a “house mother” at Pembroke College, which at the time was a women’s college affiliated with Brown University. She was 21.
Soon thereafter, she settled in Greenwich Village to pursue a career as a dancer and later as a teacher of Merce Cunningham’s signature techniques. His dance classes at Westbeth in New York’s Meatpacking District were legendary, and June was the longest serving and, arguably, the most skilled teacher at the studio.
In her April 5, 2012 article in Dance Magazine on the final Cunningham technique class at Westbeth, Pat Catterson offered this description of June’s teaching: “June masterfully took us through the exercises we all knew, bridling our high energy and varying the form enough to give us the kind of mental and physical challenges Cunningham classes always did.”
In a March 6, 2020 article in Vanity Fair, when June was 79, Laura Regensdorf wrote about the last things she was able to do before the pandemic: “Bang trim, subway ride, dance class.” Cunningham had died in 2009, but in June’s class his technique lived on. “The Cunningham technique had begun to feel like a church,” Regensdorf wrote, “between the graceful teacher June Finch, and the loft style studio.”
June’s professional life in New York working with Cunningham and his collaborators in the arts, including Jasper Johns and John Cage, had its counterpart in her life in Provincetown. She was the third generation of her family to spend summers in the famous Red House at 438 Commercial St. Bought in 1899 by Edwin Seaver and inherited by June’s parents in 1946, the house was the base for many dance- and music-filled summers shared by June, her siblings, and friends.
With her career well launched in New York, June took to teaching dance during her Provincetown summers, an endeavor that lasted 30 years. “Her dance classes were amazing,” said her niece Amy Verstappen this week. June accepted any student at any age who was interested in learning.
Greg Anton, one of a small group of advanced students who worked with June in the summers, commented on how “exacting, kind, and gracious” June was in her teaching. She was “a brilliant choreographer whose creative spirit came to life in her classes,” he said. “She was a rare gift to the arts community.”
With Marie Pace, whom she met in 1992, June organized and directed the Provincetown Dance Works from 1993 to 2006, with John Carbone as artistic consultant. The piece that best captured June’s combined skills of dancer and teacher was her lecture-dance “How to Make a Dance,” performed at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum in 1999 with the MacArthur Award-winning choreographer Elizabeth Streb, who admired June as a teacher, in attendance. Pace said that June herself was “a genius living in our midst.”
June’s sister Peggy described how they and their brother, Robert, who played the banjo and guitar, would sing and dance together with exuberance as children. Perhaps with that memory in mind, June taught young kids in Provincetown how to do the Virginia reel. At the summer square dance evenings at the pier in Wellfleet, Peggy said, June’s “legacy kids” would put on a dancing show at the end of the event. More recently, she taught her own nieces and grandnieces to dance — her last group of legacy kids.
June’s life centered on dancing and teaching, but not exclusively. In the spirit of one of her forebears, Margaret “Margie” Seaver, who was the commodore of the Provincetown Yacht Club in the 1930s, June learned as a child how to sail and to paddle the flat-bottomed, shallow-keel “Eskimo boats” designed by Jot Small, who had traveled to the polar regions with Donald MacMillan. Later, she ran the Sladeville Cottages on the Pamet River in Truro with her sister, until the cottages were converted to condominiums in 2011. According to niece Amy, she was also a chain smoker and a cutthroat poker player.
June is survived by her sister, Peggy Sovek of Truro; her brother, Robert Gebelein, of Durham, N.C.; five nieces, Deb Cox, Lisa Rough, Kathie-Ann Taylor, Amy Verstappen, and Hilary Enyedy; and eight grandnieces and -nephews.
A memorial service is planned for later in the summer, with the date, time, and place to be announced.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly reported that the kayak-like boats June learned to sail as a child were umiaks. Her brother, Robert Gebelein, notes in a letter to the editor that Provincetown’s so-called Eskimo boats were adapted from the original umiaks of the indigenous Inuit and Yupik peoples. Also, Robert played the banjo and guitar, not the piano, as previously reported.