Birchcliff ballet icon hangs up slippers

This September, the ballet room at St. Paul’s United Church (near Kingston Road and Midland Avenue) will be missing its long-time resident teacher. Donna Coysh Simpson retired in June and closed down her Coysh School of Ballet, which first opened at the church in 1969.

The room is really the sanctuary of the original church from 1922, remodeled in 1955 when it was incorporated into a larger new church building at the corner of Sandown and McIntosh. Do the math and you will realize that, under Donna’s direction, it has echoed to the sounds of ballet, jazz and tap for more years than it served as a home for worship services.

Of course, it’s not just the room and the members of St. Paul’s that will miss Donna. She’s lost count of the number of students she has taught over the years, but we know they will miss her as well. While teaching the skills of dance, she also served as a surrogate parent and trusted advisor for her young charges. Reflecting her own dislike of competitions, she didn’t subject them to that pressure, but she did prepare them for annual examinations, offering a goal for which to strive. The year-end recitals, held in the auditoriums of local schools, were also a special part of Donna’s approach.

Donna’s own ballet training began at the age of six at a school run by Louise Goldsmith in St. John’s Norway Anglican Church, so her Beach connections go back a long way. She and her husband, George, have lived just south of Main Street and Kingston Road for over 30 years. Four days a week, she “commuted” to her school at St. Paul’s, returning to her Beach residence (with dinner prepared by George!) late in the evening. George and their son, Stuart, were also part of the support team for Donna’s school.

One pleasant side effect of teaching at the same location for 44 years was the arrival of second-generation students. And Rev. Leslee Alfano, a minister at St. Paul’s, loves to tell the story of a bride-to-be who arrived for a wedding rehearsal at the church and, on hearing ballet music from the room next door, was overjoyed to realize that “Miss Coysh is still teaching here!”

In 2010 Donna was presented with a “Life Membership” by the Royal Academy of Dance in recognition of 40 consecutive years of teaching and entering students for examinations.

This month, Donna and George will be busy cleaning out the cupboard in the ballet room, probably with mixed feelings. May we suggest those feelings definitely include pride in Donna’s contributions to the families and the community that she has touched in her career.

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