Longform

Just for Kicks

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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.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff