Seventy-seven-year-old dance instructor Shirley Brewer has been teaching others how to twirl a baton and dance their way to New York City for most of her life.
She has been a prominent dancer and choreographer in one form or another nearly all her life — starting with her first lessons at age 8.
And, she is still going strong, operating Brewer School of Dance and Baton for over 50 years. The studio, at 4320 Navarre Avenue since 1993, first opened at Starr and East Broadway in East Toledo in 1960.
|Front: Sydney Wilbur, Alaynah Martin, Shirley Brewer, Courtney Large,
Calee Reynolds. Back: Laura Howard, Jesse Morris, Monica Martin,
Payton Cufr. (Press photo by Ken Grosjean)
As a child, Brewer hopped on a bus with her now deceased sister to a downtown studio for lessons, but she quickly caught the attention of instructor Marilyn Krall, who had a studio on Starr Avenue.
“She took an interest in me about the age of 10, and she said, ‘I’m going to take you and start getting you trained by better teachers,’” Brewer said. “Nobody around here taught technique or anything like that, and she took me to the champion twirlers so I could get my credentials with her, which you don’t have to have nowadays.”
It was in 1949, while under Krall’s tutelage that Brewer started the dance revue team, the Marilynettes, one of her first such excursions. Soon after, she started the Brewer Time-Steppers.
One of her early trainers was a former Vaudeville dancing partner of Gene Kelly’s, and she also received instruction from a well-known European dancer who, thanks to Krall, arrived here from California specifically to work with Brewer.
By 1970, her name was so well-known locally that when Johnny Cash, June Carter, and Loretta Lynn were performing in Columbus, Brewer was asked to appear representing the City of Toledo.
“June and her mother entertained, too, and I knew he (Cash) and her were going to get married,” Brewer said.
Shortly after both of Brewer’s parents passed away 17 days apart in 1972, locally based Excalibur Productions called her. She enlisted as Excalibur’s choreographer for “The Sound of Music,” repeated the same assignment for “1776” and followed suit in “Flower Drum Song,” where she was also the featured dancer with Sally Harding in a dream ballet that was considered the highlight of the show. She also choreographed a former Miss America, Laurie Lee Shaffer, for the Excalibur production of “The King and I.”
In 1973, Ann Arbor-based entertainment and arts magazine Impresario featured Excalibur Productions. After she dancing a ballet in “Flower Drum,” Brewer was asked by Impresario why she didn’t dance more, saying her role with Excalibur was more of an opportunity for her students, who she always put first.
“No one really asked me,” she told Impresario. “Now my students have a place to use their dancing. They can take their lessons, prepare an audition, and the money spent on the lessons can start to mean something. I wish more people were aware of what Excalibur has to offer.”
‘Sister’ Theresa Brewer
Shirley is the sister-in-law of Theresa Brewer, who was the sister of Shirley’s late husband, Mick. Theresa was one of the nation’s most prolific and popular female pop singers of the 1950s, recording nearly 600 songs.
Shirley often traveled with Theresa and was frequently asked to work with her, but she often put it off.
“Someday Theresa and I have to work together,” Shirley once responded while she was with Excaliber Productions. “I’d like to see that happen, but I don’t mean going out on the road. I wouldn’t want to live out of a trunk. I wouldn’t want to be away from my family.”
Whenever Shirley was seen with Theresa, she was asked the same question — why not pursue a career like Theresa? Even Theresa wanted her to do so, especially when the two were younger, studying and pursuing careers in New York.
“She was quite upset with me because I didn’t want to stay and try to do more (in NY),” Shirley said. “People don’t realize, it’s not lucrative to try and get into that, but for someone like herself it was because she had agents and a hit song.”
Once, while with Theresa at the Silver Fox in Flint, she was mistaken for Theresa’s sister, which happened frequently. Shirley says Theresa did not mind.
“You walk like her, you talk like her, and you look like her,’ and I said, ‘No, I’m married to her brother but I’m not her sister,’” Shirley said. “But everybody always say that, and I’d tell her, ‘Would you tell everybody that I’m not your sister, I’m your sister-in-law?’ and she would say, ‘No, you’re my sister.’”
Helps local shows become big
By the late 1970s, her choreographing skills were in high demand. Under director Wayne Bricker, an Oregon native, Shirley choreographed for The Velvetone Choraliers the “Travel Around the World” at Fassett Junior High School.
In 1978, Shirley was part of the “Rough Diamond Revue,” which was staged by the Jerome H. Cargill Producing Organization of New York City. The revue was brought to Clay High School in May as part of a musical variety show to raise funds for the purchase of a fetal heart monitor for St. Charles Hospital’s obstetrical department.
In 1988, Shirley choreographed the Peristyle’s Christmas show with Sesame Street’s Bob McGraff.
In the late 1980s, early 90s, she and several other “older than average chorus line gypsies” who called themselves the “Happy Hoofer,” were featured in Ohio-Michigan Line magazine.
The name, in itself, was enough to draw attention, not to mention the fact that these eight dancers won numerous competitions in the 40-50 year old categories.
“I named them ‘The Happy Hoofers’ and I would say to the audience, ‘you have to spell it H-o-o-f-e-r.’ You’ve got have a sense of humor,” Shirley said.
The Happy Hoofers took first place in a local Star Power competition, which made them eligible for nationals in Atlantic City, N.J. or Orlando, Fla.
They also performed at places like Little Sisters of the Poor, the Oregon Community Theater Variety Show, Portside in downtown Toledo, Zenobia Temple, and various country clubs and other entertainment venues.
In late August, 1990, the Brewer Dance Studio played a role in the 30th anniversary celebration of the locally-based but nationally renowned Johnny Knorr Orchestra.
She has also choreographed for the Toledo Opera, the Toledo Seaway Sweet Adelines, Waterville Playshop, The Village Players, Oregon Community Theater, parades, numerous school musicals and plays, and even choreographed “The Music Man” for Oregon Little Theater in late spring of 1987. A Waite High School graduate, she even once was a guest baton twirler for the Green Bay Packers.
Shirley’s teaching credentials go beyond private lessons at her Oregon studio.
“My ballet master in 1980 said, ‘Do you realize how many students you have reached?’ and it was over 10,000 then, and it’s been more since,” Shirley said. “I’m teaching three generations now, and I’m on the third generation. I have taught their grandparents, I’ve taught their mothers, and now I have taught the kids.”
She taught at the University of Toledo four years, overseeing The Rockettes dance team’s choreography, and has been involved with high school majorettes and music programs at Cardinal Stritch Catholic, Central Catholic, Waite, St. John’s Jesuit, Maumee, Perrysburg, Genoa, Northwood, Oak Harbor, Lake, and others. She was first put female twirlers on St. John’s and St. Francis football fields for halftime football shows, taking girls from the Notre Dame and the former McAuley academies.
Shirley has been with the Clay majorettes and drum majors for 40 years, and she has been honored for her commitment by the Oregon school board.
One of her Clay ex-drum majors made it big on cruise ships, became a dancer in New York and now choreographs there. Another drum major named Terry Maltbia became a state, national, and world champion, and now works for a well-known research firm.
“He was one, you’d see him at a bus stop, and he had a baton in his hand,” Shirley said. “He came to me in the eighth grade, and I put a lot of training into him and he worked hard. He made me proud.”
Classes offered at her Oregon studio today include ballet, jazz, tap dancing, baton, ball room dancing, hip hop dancing, and wedding choreography.
One thing she has to keep up to date with is styles, which can change just like fashion.
“Anybody who wants to go into the dance business, there is one thing in my training that I was told,” Shirley said. “Since I started teaching baton, styles and techniques have changed at least three times. There are still teachers teaching the front hand spin, which went out of style in 1945, and I have to undo it when they come.”