The line of tap dancers stretches out in front of the mirror in the basement studio. There is some sort of confusion over the rehearsal hats--a motley assortment of battered New Year's Eve party bowlers. You're supposed to take them off and put them back on--on the beat. This is not as easy as it sounds.
"You know what I vote?" one of the dancers says. "The next song, no hats."
"Hey, it's better than a cane," someone answers. "You ever try dancing with a cane?"
"I don't know about the rest of you," says a woman who is mopping her brow with a bit of Kleenex retrieved from her cleavage, "but my side of the room was perfect."
"Oh, yeah? What'd we do so wrong?"
"Flap, ball change," says Dottie Attridge, whose patience with chatter has worn out. "She told us four flap, ball changes. Then paddle turn." Dottie demonstrates the step without getting to her feet. Since she was injured a few weeks ago, she's worn a knee brace and has done most of her dancing from a chair. But she certainly hasn't missed a rehearsal.
Unless they are out of town, doing some of the traveling that seems to be the major perk of the retirement years, the women always show up for rehearsal. Many arrive twenty minutes early.
"I don't know if it's a ligament strain or a torn cartilage or what," Dottie says. "I'm going to the doctah," she adds, in a broad New York accent. "He'll tell me I ovahdid."
"Ha! I told my doctor I tap-danced, and he just looked at me!"
"They laugh at you, is what they do."
The Southwest Tappers cackle. Doctors. What do they know?
"Flap, ball change," Dottie repeats.
Instead of the confusing hat number, however, the Southwest Tappers move into "Lullaby of Broadway," a song they do with great confidence and show-biz finesse. Done right, there is nothing so debonair as tap-dancing, and when a dozen women--all over the age of sixty--are dancing in unison, it is just plain...
"Tuff," says a young man in baggy pants who has wandered over from the weight room across the hall. "I wonder, is that hard to do?"
While he is wondering, the song ends, at which point a few of the dancers notice that they have an audience. The Southwest Tappers are used to this. Their motto--printed on their business cards--is "We'll tap, you'll clap." But this is a rehearsal. A woman with white, stiff hair and the legs of a twenty-year-old taps over and shuts the door gently in the young man's face.
Six years ago, in the basement of the Southwest YMCA, an introductory tap class for "older adults" was called to order. The members of the original class, which later grew into two classes plus one rehearsal each week, tend to disagree as to the identity of the first student.
Joann Rudoff thinks it was her.
"I was in the class with two staff members--that was it," she recalls. Her reasons for being there were not complex. "I'm a real ham," she admits. "At our next competition, I'll do a solo dance to the Andrews Sisters singing 'Rum and Coca-Cola.' I wear a sort of Carmen Miranda outfit, but without the fruit on my head."
Having retired from her job as principal for a gifted-and-handicapped school, Joann didn't spend long casting about for an avocation. The only unattached member of the group, she likes to be seen as an independent spirit, traveling so much and so far away that her most informal chat can contain a sentence like this: "I have very strong feelings about the Chinese takeover of Tibet." The other tappers are used to this, in the same way that Joann's children are used to her tapping.
"They are completely resigned to the kind of hijinks I get into," Joann says. "Probably they would like me to babysit a little more, but I like to dance."
In this group, though, the acknowledged expert on the complete and total enjoyment of dancing is Arlene Rudnick, who, at 71, favors floral leggings and big T-shirts, is the tallest of the Southwest Tappers and has a smile like a headlight.
"My mother thought I would be too tall and awkward," Arlene says, "which is why I started to dance. Well," she sighs contentedly, "it's great to be back."
After childhood drilling in tap, ballet and toe, Arlene left her home in Rochester, New York, to live in a hotel for single women in Manhattan and study at the American School of Ballet. During rehearsals, a slimy crew of nightclub talent scouts would troll the studio.
"I ended up auditioning for a nightclub known as the Pink Horseshoe," Arlene recalls. "In those days, the dancers didn't wear bikinis or anything, but I still thought my mother would not like it. Then I auditioned for the Rockettes."
And got the job! Specifically, in the very center of the line, the spot traditionally reserved for the tallest Rockette. "But there were ten other girls ahead of me, and I missed my mother," Arlene remembers. "I went home to Rochester and did productions at the Eastman Center and got married and had six kids." Her husband worked in aerospace. In 1972 he was transferred to Denver.
He and Arlene are lifelong athletes--biking, golfing and tennis, especially now that he's retired. By the time Arlene rediscovered tap, she'd had nearly a half-century hiatus, but this didn't stop her from sliding back into the old, suave patterns. Her husband began coming to Southwest Tappers classes to watch her dance, and he stayed to cue the tape player. Best of all, Arlene acquired a new friend.
"Oh yeah, Arlene's a super athlete," Dottie Attridge says. "That's her life. I go to this women's fitness camp with her every summer. Lousy accommodations, lousy food--I mean, 1,200 calories, what's that? But great fun. Great fun."
Dottie danced as a child in Queens--"at the Marilyn Mack Academy," she says proudly. "It was the place to go and the activity to do. Also, I played basketball and softball, because in the inner city, if you're not playing sports, you're up on the roof, smoking or kissing or worse."
Worse was not Dottie's style. After meeting her future husband on a dance floor, she married, had six children and moved to Denver in the mid-Seventies. "I taught third and fourth grade for years, and I retired seven years ago," she relates. "But after the first year of that--well, how much can you clean? I tried aerobics, but I knew it would kill me. Then, six years ago, I looked in at tap-dancing, and that was it."
Part of the appeal was the instant female bonding. "They say your friends are made when you're young--ha!" says Dottie. "We're all Catholics in the group, and not to be prejudiced, but we're similar because of that, and we help each other. Three of the ladies have had breast cancer and survived it, and they always come back to the group, although they probably won't tell you."
After a few years of attending class, Dottie learned that the Tappers were about to make their stage debut.
"What?" she remembers thinking. "They all wanna be Ginger Rogers?" And then she remembers thinking, "Well, it's a form of volunteerism."
But the first audience Dottie recalls dancing for was "rude and noisy. The Lady Elks," she sniffs. "Never again."
She doesn't think much more of recent audiences, either. At nursing homes, she says, "they fall asleep." And as for the group's planned outing in August to a talent pageant in Las Vegas, "I'm not going," Dottie says. "That's where I draw the line. That's a JonBenet thing. They pay to enter, and I find that depressing."
The other Southwest Tappers find it energizing, which is handy, as there are still dozens of costume details to organize, choreography to polish and travel plans to make.
Besides, as teacher/choreographer Nancy Rullo points out: "Girls, your line looks awful. Hands! Hats! Come on!"
After two more run-throughs of "Route 66," Nancy walks up and down the line straightening shoulders, improving posture and dragging her dancers into place by their wrists. Sometimes she dances in front of the line, yelling into the mirror when she spots someone who doesn't have the steps memorized.
"Can you tell I teach preschoolers during the day?" Nancy asks during a break. She's also taught tap since she was thirteen, and she danced professionally in the USO. But never has she happened upon a more demanding corps de tap than the Southwest Tappers.
"They lost their old teacher three years ago," Nancy explains. "She went down to the Central Y. Believe me, these ladies made it into a crisis. My mom's in the group, so I told them, if you can use me afternoons or evenings, I guess I can help you. And sure, they're wonderful. But if they wanna chat," she says, eyeing the casual discussion groups that have formed in corners of the rehearsal room, "they have to do it on their own time."
"Nancy puts in a newer, harder step on each dance she teaches us, and she uses me as an example," says Coke Faltermaier, Nancy's mother. "She corrects me in front of everyone. I notice."
With nothing but pride. Now in her late sixties, Coke is only six years into the tap-dancing alter ego of a life she envisioned for herself as a toddler but was unable to pursue. "My two older sisters tap-danced, but my father died when I was two, so I never had the opportunity," she says. "Then my husband and I had two putt-putt golf courses and I managed them, so I was too busy."
When she finally found the time and location, the class was full--with the likes of Arlene and Dottie, who already knew what they were doing. Penny Smith, the original teacher, challenged Coke to come up with a second class of older female beginning tappers.
"She said she could do it if I got six people," Coke recalls. "I got fourteen, but most dropped out because tap-dancing is a commitment. You have to go every week or you don't learn anything. The rest of us are still here."
Even Billye Regan, who's had two knee replacements and is having to content herself with acting as emcee until she recovers.
"You know what?" she asks. "All this came out of having a mammogram. I mean, there I was, with all these poor women in gowns in the waiting room, and one of them told me they needed volunteers at Swedish Hospital. Coke and I had met at square-dancing, and I talked her into going to Swedish with me. At noon, when we'd go to lunch, we'd link arms and go skipping into the cafeteria. I said, 'Gee, Coke, we gotta find a way to tap.'"
Billye had tapped before--at the age of four, in San Bonita, Texas. Married in Denver, she learned ballroom and square-dancing. More than that, she says, "I was a teacher, and anytime there would be a program, I would teach the kids little dance moves. Actually, I would be in any kind of show anyone wanted to put on. It's just in the blood, isn't it?"
And yet, when Billye found out that the Southwest Tappers were going to actually perform, she was terrified. "Oh, yes," she recalls, "backstage, I was a terrible mess. And then, when it was over, we all waltzed off the stage saying, 'Hey, when's our next gig?' We're hams! We're hams without quite enough talent to have made it as show-biz professionals."
"Well, you think, what am I going to do wrong next?" says Jeannine Wilkinson of her time on the stage. "But then you think, gee whiz, we've got all these costumes. Might as well use them. And then performing becomes the main reason you do it."
Wilkinson, a self-described "shrimp" who wears high-heeled tap shoes to improve the stature of the line and is arguably the most glamorous of the Southwest troupe, studied tap and ballet as a teenager. "But I was never thought to be very good at it," she remembers, "and instead of keeping up with it, I got married and moved, and things got in the way, the way they will."
By the time the 65-year-old Jeannine saw an ad for the Southwest Y class, she had been working in real estate for years and was merely looking for a decent way to exercise. But within the year she found herself backstage at a daycare center for victims of multiple sclerosis, about to dance.
"I thought, 'Here are all these young people in wheelchairs, with walkers, and we're a bunch of old women dancing. This is wrong.' But they tapped their feet and clapped their hands and really seemed to like us. It turned out to be fun."
So fun that Jeannine decided she rather liked being in front of people. She became a volunteer at the Denver Zoo, a model for historic fashion shows at the Molly Brown House, and an actress in a group that tours elementary schools. Only one venue still gives her the jitters.
"Nursing homes," she says flatly. "I have to admit, I thank God it isn't me in there. I am so thankful that I can do my dancing and then leave when I'm done."
"Sure, it's more fun when the audience is awake," agrees Shirley Strait, a veteran of more nursing-home appearances than she can count. "It can be hard to get their attention. But we always get a really good reception at the MS society; that's a great audience. And we had some kind of older singles group recently--they were great. Very active. More our age."
Shirley and her daughter Mickey Burns--who accounts for one half of the under-sixty Southwest Tappers--have been dancing with the group for four years. At competitions, they occasionally form a duo that taps to the strains of "Mack the Knife." Shirley's is the familiar I-got-married-and-had-kids-no-time-to-dance story--except that her husband worked for the National Park Service, and she often found herself in remote locations such as the Grand Canyon and Rocky Mountain National Park. Having studied modern dance as a teenager, she was excited when "a gal came up from Denver to give jazz classes"--and instantly signed up for the "Moms' class." But Shirley's dance career was sporadic. By the time she heard of the Southwest Tappers, she'd entered into a love-hate relationship with aerobics.
Shirley's return to tap was "like riding a bicycle," she recalls. "My husband thinks it's great, too. He said, 'Just don't try to talk me into it.' Not a problem. He does his thing, I do mine."
In recent years this has meant that Shirley and her daughter are frequently off palling around with the other tappers, on the way to such out-of-town gigs as the "Rockin' D Roundup Talent Competition," in which the group placed first last year.
"Going on competitions is a social time," Shirley says. "We hang out at the Santa Monica Pier or Disneyland. And last month my husband and I had our fortieth. Everyone in the group showed."
At the Southwest Y, at 5181 West Kenyon Avenue, the parking lot is almost always packed to capacity. From the reception desk, you can often see a pool aerobics class in which elderly women hoist plastic milk jugs half filled with water in time to musical accompaniment. You might encounter a vast day camp full of preschoolers in cowboy hats, all happily screaming "Howdy!" On moonlit nights, a mysterious group known as the Southwest Moonbladers meets to skate until midnight. The Southwest Y is the very embodiment of a community rec center.
In the first-floor trophy case, you'd expect to find evidence of all the Y's myriad activities. Instead the space is completely devoted to the Southwest Tappers--filled with trophies earned at everything from the Forty Plus I Heart Dance (first place) to the Showbiz Regional Talent Competition (first place) to the Colorado Show Wagon (first place again). At the Y, it is the general consensus that the women of the Southwest Tappers are the hotshots.
Today they're in Western outfits--black leotards and tights, black shorts with red satin fringe, matching vests, red sequined cowboy hats and Western-boot-shaped spats. The number is "Born to Boogie," a rollicking country-Western drinking song, and Dottie is no longer dancing in a chair, but on her feet.
"Ladies!" Nancy Rullo screams over the music. "Hats!"
The line obliges, turning the hats toward the mirror so that only the red-sequined crowns are visible. Billye Regan hangs to the side, doing scaled-down versions of all the steps. Each of her knees is crossed by a deep, jagged scar.
The ladies assume a shoot-'em-up posture.
"Okay, ladies! 'Mame'!"
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Good. Rehearsal can and will go on, for the next hour at least. "Mame" alone will occupy the next fifteen minutes.
"The problem," someone says, breathing heavily, "is that this song kind of breaks down near the end. I know I do."
"Well, everyone has different energy levels," Dottie answers, with perhaps a hint of challenge in her voice. "Some people dance. Some people do nothing."
Okay, "Mame" again. This time the run-through is nearly perfect. And it's a good dance, a showstopper. It ends with the Southwest Tappers standing shoulder to shoulder, arms around each other's waists, smiling into the mirror, in a state-of-the-art kick line.