all the right moves

Tap Dance Teacher Shirl Simolari | Speaking of Springfield | Springfield, MA

all the right moves

Loosely warming up on the dance floor, 10 girls of all shapes and sizes peer into a room-length mirror above the ballet bar. To a rhythm of their own, their feet try out the floor, heel followed by toe, in a cacophonous release of pent-up energy.

But four seconds into Old Blue Eye’s “Fly Me To the Moon,” the girls are moving in unison, the echo of their syncopated steps providing the perfect accompaniment for Frank Sinatra and his orchestra.

Teamwork and percussion. Tap. In an age when hip hop and rap seem to rule young worlds, tap dancing is en vogue at the Dunbar Y Family and Community Center. To find the reason why, one need look no farther than the whirling dervish at the center of it all – Shirley (her friends call her “Shirl”) Simolari.

Standing just 4 feet 11, she has become a larger than life figure to some 80 young girls ever since she volunteered to teach tap dancing here four years ago. But tap is just the tip of the iceberg. In weekly Tuesday sessions and two-week summer camps, she also teaches the girls about life.

For children, some growing up amid the toxic stress of poverty, the classes in tap and in life offer a bridge to a world of possibilities.

Lesson No. 1: Attitude, not to mention respect, is everything.

“Every time she comes, she’s always smiling,” says Alliha Malcolm, the 12-year-old dance team leader. “Some teachers rush us. She has patience. She always brings food, too. She treats us like her own kids.”

Simolari also provides the expensive shoes, occasional rides to class and even hosts a family get-together at her Somers home with her husband. Teaching tap at Dunbar was a coming home of sorts for Simolari, who is “semi-retired” from the banking industry. Growing up in the city’s Pine Point section, she would hop a bus to dance at Dunbar with Frank Hatchett, a choreographer who moved on to international fame.

Throughout her ascent from bank teller to commercial cash management consultant, she remained immersed in her first love – tap dancing. For children, some growing up amid the toxic stress of poverty, the classes in tap and in life offer a bridge to a world of possibilities.

And Simolari will soon be reaching even more aspiring dancers by offering the “Community Tap Dance Program” on Saturdays to students from kindergarten to 12th grade citywide. She’s hoping that other dancers and YMCA donors will help to provide training and tap shoes, which can cost up to $90 a pair.

Simolari’s legendary energy has moved mountains, says David Potter, a Springfield native, friend and influential choreographer. Kris Allard, vice president of development and communications at the YMCA, agrees.

“Many of the youth we serve are coming from single-parent households, financially challenged households. When we have a volunteer like Shirley, it gives them an advantage they otherwise wouldn’t have. ”

Kiarah Jones, 10, summed up Simolari’s impact on her dancing team, which recently won a citywide championship. Simolari, she said, has helped them to learn all of the right moves, on the dance floor, “and in life.”

Send checks to the YMCA noting the donation is for the “Community Tap Dance Program” at the Dunbar Y Family and Community Center, 33 Oak Street, Springfield, MA 01109.

Auditions for the new K-12 citywide Saturday program will be held on Saturday, Sept. 29, at Dunbar from 9:30-11 a.m. for kindergartners to first graders; 11 a.m. - 12 p.m. for second to fourth graders; 12 - 1 p.m. for fifth to seventh graders and 1 - 3 p.m. for eighth to 12th graders. It is not necessary to be a YMCA member to audition for the Saturday program.

Photo credit: Paul Schnaittacher