By Kristin Boza
Doris Humphries is best known around the neighborhood as the 97-year-old tap, Latin dance, and ballroom dance teacher at the Dance Gallery, 10628 S. Western. Her classes focus on the more mature dancer, and she welcomes beginners through advanced dancers. Although she was recently sidelined from her teaching job due to brain surgery, she hopes to get back in the studio and continue teaching.
Being a dance teacher as she approaches 100 years of age is remarkable enough, but digging into Humphries’ past is a gateway to a world of old Hollywood glamour, sparkly costumes, and celebrities.
Humphries, a graduate of Englewood High School, graced stages all across the nation as one half of the Manhattan Debs. Humphries danced under the stage name Dinky, and her partner, known as Junior, signed on to the William Morris Agency and toured with bandleader Louis Jordan. They performed with Ray Charles, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstein, and Dizzy Gillespie, to name a few.
“We danced at practically all of the theaters and nightclubs in every city,” Humphries said. “We were even able to make a movie!” The pair appeared in “Swing Parade of 1946,” featuring the Three Stooges and actress Gale Storm. The film can be found on YouTube; keep an eye out at the 49-minute mark for Dinky and Junior tapping along with a swing band.
Humphries recalled performing in stage shows at movie theaters. “The curtains would close and the music would start, and we’d appear on stage!” she said. “It was a lot of fun because it was something we loved to do.” She performed at the Chicago Theatre, the Oriental Theater (now named the James M. Nederlander Theatre), the Apollo Theater in New York City, and the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco.
Humphries just couldn’t stay retired, and loves her job teaching adults at the Dance Gallery. “I just love to see people get the dances, and I’m at a point where I don’t have to execute the dances, I just tell the students what to do!” she said. “I love the music and I like to get into it and see others dance.”
She believes that dance is a great exercise to keep people moving and busy. “Just go for it! No matter what age you are. You’re testing yourself to see if you can handle it, and if you really want to dance you have to do it,” Humphries said.
“Doris is my hero, both physically and spiritually,” said Marylee Sinopoli, owner and artistic director at The Dance Gallery. “Every time she came in to teach, she has a smile on her face and words of wisdom to give me. She’s a wonderful mentor for all our younger tappers, and she loves to watch the baby tappers at the studio. I asked her to come back to teach for our fall session and, if all goes well with the world, she’ll be back! She responded with ‘I will be so happy to be teaching again!’”
Humphries’ daughter, Kay Humphries Grannum, has been helping her mom through three brain surgeries for a benign tumor. “She’s doing really well and even danced as a part of her physical therapy,” Grannum said. “Her therapist didn’t think she was making much of an impact because my mom was able to handle all of the exercises she gave her to do. So, I suggested playing music and letting her dance. We put on some salsa music and she just started dancing. The physical therapist said, ‘I don’ think you need me anymore!’ Dancing has really kept her brain sharp.”
To find out more about Doris Humphries, check out her 2004 interview with The HistoryMakers, the nation’s largest African American video oral history collection. Or better yet, sign up for a Dance Gallery class with Humphries when she makes her triumphant return to the studio!