Gretchen Simms

DANCERS SURROUND Gretchen Simms for the last time as she prepares them for Simm's final upcoming production.

EL CENTRO — Gretchen Simms, owner-director of Dancin’ Feet Studio in El Centro, will direct her last recital at Southwest Theater in El Centro June 20 and 21 at 7:30 p.m. each evening. Performances are free to all. The production will be in part an autobiography of Simms’ career in dance. It will also honor the new owner-director Susana Irigoyen with solo dancers portraying Duck and Owl mascots of Irigoyen’s alma mater Cottey College, a private institution in Missouri.

Though Simms will return in the fall to instruct a few classes for the new owner, there will be no more teaching six classes without a break, three to four nights a week. Nor will there be mornings, nights and weekends working on music, choreography, costumes, and sets 365 days a year. A career that began in 1973 after attending college will abruptly wind its way down. The studio officially leaves her hands August 1.

Simms was 4 ½ years old when her mother felt that her young daughter needed something to occupy her time for the year prior to entering school. “Mom took me to see 'Cinderella' the ballet, and I fell in love with the dancing,” Simms says. “My final production will be my own script that begins with a little girl falling in love with Cinderella. My dancers, from the little 3-year-olds up, will portray tea parties, jumping rope, and family vacations, as well as dancers taking classes in our Dancin’ Feet studio.” 

Gretchen’s mother, Mrs. Ruth Beinhorn, will be in attendance again as she has for nearly every night of every production Gretchen Simms has put on. Simms' late father, Charles, also had been present at every one.

“I studied ballet exclusively, teaching some dance classes prior to going off to college,” she recalled, “But of course, studied all types of dance for years afterward." Simms returned to El Centro to teach six more years for the Blanche Luff Studio in El Centro. 

Dancing friend Dee Ann Osborn opened two studios with Simms in 1980. One was located in Brawley, the other in Ocotillo Plaza in El Centro. “Oh, that terrible floor!" she exclaims, recalling the cement tile. In 1986, she opened Dancin’ Feet by herself. She then rented the old Jacques 'n Jills gym on Main Street prior to actually buying it. The floors were wood and better for dancers.

After a fire destroyed the building, she moved to The Women’s 10,000 Club at 701 Olive Street in El Centro where the studio is today. With its large wood floor, main room and a smaller room, she carried on. Her husband, family, and friends built props and backdrops to put on productions now at Southwest High School’s grand theater.

Though the stage was small, Simms loved her early productions at Rodney Auditorium in Calexico. For one, it was ideal for her version of the classic "Wizard of Oz."

“When I was a little girl, I checked out every Oz novel by author L. Frank Baum. All 14 books!” Simms says. The movie only tells a small portion of the story. “The ruby slippers were not red, for starters,” Simms said. “They were silver! And Dorothy doesn’t return home after the adventure in Emerald City.”

Simms has not adapted any story from a Disney storyline, but rather has stayed with classic stories in the public domain. She has adapted scripts for productions of Peter Pan, the Little Mermaid, and Oz. “In the original 'Snow White' story, the wicked queen is punished by having to dance forever in red-hot shoes!” Simms says but didn’t include that little fact in her script. “The original classics were written to teach children propriety, manners, and how to behave,” she explained. “Consequences were a part of that.” 

Simms has nine scripts she has used for her productions. Blanche Luff wrote one script and Susanne Severns wrote three. The other four are Simms' original scripts, plus this final one. All nine use her own choreography put to music from the public domain. “I love bringing music into sight — making music visual.”

“Most of my career my studio has been self-contained,” Simms explained. “My three sons learned a lot about a good work ethic, dependability and stage production. One did all the lighting using the old-fashioned light panels at Palmer Auditorium. My oldest pulled curtains and moved scenery. Their friends would also help … My husband was involved with so much, but his greatest help was listening over coffee in the mornings,” she recalled. “As I ran ideas past him, he always had some valuable wisdom and insight to share.”

At the height of Dancin’ Feet, Gretchen Simms and her small group of teachers instructed almost 400 dancers one season. There were no other studios in the Valley. Now there are many, and she smiles adding, “My former dancers are everywhere.”

In fact, some 16 former dancers will greet the public in the foyer of the theater at this last recital. They will be holding large posters of past production covers, each design drawn by Simms’ artist sister Tahne Gollwitzer.

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