Shirley Marley remembers her first dance lessons as if it was yesterday. She was just a 6-year-old girl who moved to town from the farm.
“My mother wanted me to dance and she took me to the conservatory (at what is now UMKC) for class, and we had to take the bus and a street car to get there,” Marley said.
That was more than 70 years ago, but Marley hasn’t stopped dancing since. This past weekend, current students, their parents and alumni traveled from as far away as London to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Miller Marley, the studio Marley co-founded with her husband, Johnny Miller. The celebration, held at the Ritz-Charles complete with a red carpet, drew 575 guests to salute the dance icon with song and dance, even a flash mob.
“I love these kids,” said Marley of her students, past and present. “I know it’s so hard for them to come back and I so appreciate it.”
Former student and current Miller Marley dance teacher Ann McCroskey and school director Brian McGinness worked together for a year to plan the celebration.
“This is 50 years of Miller Marley, and what Shirley has done for people over the years is selfless,” McCroskey said. “She has helped so many people start their own studios. She has given to so many people that we wanted to honor her.”
“The magic is Shirley’s generosity,” said McGinness, who started teaching with Marley 33 years ago when he was a member of the Kansas City Ballet. “This was a celebration for Shirley.”
Marley said she fell into her career as a dance teacher.
“When I was in high school, my teacher at the time moved to Chicago and I took over,” Marley said. “I was going to be a nurse or secretary or teacher and then this fell into my lap.”
Marley’s first tiny studio was located at 72nd Street and Prospect in Kansas City. With a handful of students, Marley built a following. After meeting Johnny Miller at a dance convention, the couple married in 1962. The following year, they opened a studio in the Ward Parkway Shopping Center with about 150 students. Twenty years later, Marley took the school to Kansas, first to Ranchmart Shopping Center and later to the current location at West 103rd Street and Mastin Avenue in Overland Park.
Over the years, the couple cultivated dancers and troupes.
“My husband went out to the (Kansas City) Chiefs and presented the idea of the Chiefettes,” Marley said. “They bought the idea and I did that for 20 years” she said of directing and choreographing the group.
Marley was the resident children’s choreographer for Starlight Theatre when all productions were locally produced. Marley has taken hundreds of young dancers to various competitions and created seven different performing troupes through her school. Many of her former students have gone on to professional careers in the performing arts, including the Broadway stage. Among her “kids” is Eric Huffman, currently a member of the second national tour of the Tony-award winning musical “Book of Mormon.” Huffman came back and performed at Saturday night’s fete for Marley.
“Miller Marley got me started on this path, and I truly wouldn’t be doing what I am doing with her,” said Huffman. “She really pushed me.”
These days, at 77, Marley teaches 16 hours a week of tap.
“That’s all they’ll let me teach,” she said. The school has a faculty of 18, including 12 former students. Marley has gone from one tiny studio to six large studios that are busy housing 124 classes weekly for 700 students. While she’s a bit older and wiser, Tappin’ Shirley, as many affectionately call Marley, is still sharing her passion with others.
“She’s still teaching me,” McGinness said. “Every day is an adventure. She makes me laugh.”
Marley’s not looking to hang up her tap shoes anytime soon.
“I’ve never had a job in my life,” Marley said. “I love this — it’s not work. They’re all family to me.”