Hampton Bays resident and lifelong dancer Mary Castro is the heel-toe maestro among Southampton’s tapping society of seniors, but it was another East End dancer that spurred her along to skip into her current role of dance teacher at Southampton’s Rogers Memorial Library.
When Castro met former Rockette, the late Doris Dunn, during a dance class at Dunn’s studio in Riverhead, she “could tell she was the real deal.”
Beginning in her childhood, Dunn was a professional, dancing during the Great Depression in her native New York City and auditioning for highly coveted roles of the time, most notably for 1935’s The Little Colonel. Remember child star Shirley Temple dancing on the staircase with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson? Well, that part was almost Dunn’s.
As an adult, Dunn gave tap dancing lessons in the basement of her Jericho home, gaining local popularity, and eventually moving further east, settling in Southampton. According to Castro, Dunn’s the main reason tap dancing became accessible to the town’s resident seniors. After a screening of the documentary Been Rich All My Life at the library, a palpable interest for dance was ignited amongst the audience.
“The documentary caught the attention and affection of those who saw it,” Castro says. “So much so, that they wanted a tap dance class here at the library. And Doris was the obvious choice to teach it.”
So began a weekly tap dancing class for seniors, led by Dunn, assisted by Castro, and facilitated by the library’s program director, Yvette Postelle.
That was about 15 years ago. Now with Castro at the helm for about 10, she currently leads a group of 16 tight knit South Fork seniors in a weekly tap dance class.
“It’s just such a joy to be there,” she says. “So many of them have been here since it was first established. They keep coming back!”
In addition to the obvious comradery and friendships forged from the group, Castro noted the immense health benefits and increased mental and physical activity due to tap dancing amongst the senior population. “Dancing is just so good for that. Particularly tap dancing, because there’s a specific routine element to it that you have to remember. This is infinitely better than sitting at home in your bathrobe and jammies at 11 a.m.,” she laughs.
The group meets on Mondays at noon for an hour at the library. Classes run for eight week sessions, costing $40 in total. Participants learn the basic tap moves (the name of what you do with your feet), like shuffle ball, ball change, step heel and single buffalo. Next is how to apply those steps into routines, such as classics like the “Shim Sham,” “Leon Collins” and the “Bojangles.” Eventually, full acts are developed, with a clear beginning, middle and end.
Skill levels within the dance group range, with some of the members being complete novices.
“Over the years dancers come to us with little or no experience right alongside dancers who are real pros,” Castro says.
Jerome Toy, of Sag Harbor, is one of the group’s newbies, participating for about eight years and is “just now starting to get it,” he says. Others are life-long dancers, with a couple of truly seasoned pros scattered in the mix.
“Kitty [Brumberg] was a professional ballerina. “She danced with Baryshnikov,” says Castro of one of the troupe’s current members. “And Ann [Coppola] is such a well-trained dancer. She can do anything from flamenco to lyrical jazz to interpretive dance.”
There are also what Castro calls “snow bird tappers,” those tap dancers who winter in Florida and summer in the Hamptons.
“Ellie Thier is a retired ballroom dancer and still taps with us during the summer,” according to Castro. “Then she heads to Florida every fall where she choreographs dance performances there.”
Over the years, the group has performed at the Southampton Cultural Center, Southampton Hospital, Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center and senior centers in Bridgehampton, Hampton Bays and Flanders.
“Our last live performance was in November,” Castro says. “One of the great things with what we do is, it’s usually a very forgiving audience. A lot of the audience members are seniors themselves.”
Although the next live performance date hasn’t been nailed down, Castro says that’s not the priority for the group.
“We’re here for the fun,” she says. “We all just love being together and learning from each other. And in the end, that’s what comes across.”
For more information call the library at 631-283-0774.