Just for Kicks

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."