At 89, she taps the spirit of dance

12/27/2012 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 10:39 AM

As a lively young woman with a flair for dancing and a love of the limelight, Ann Gershenzon was half of the Lowe Sisters duo, tap- dancing on weekends in a Kansas City nightclub with her older sister, Helen, to help make a little extra money for their family.

"My sister and I were always happy to help my family during the Depression," said Gershenzon, 89, a widow and retired Sacramento City Unified School District employee. "We made $10 a weekend, and my mom fed a family of seven on $15 a week.

"The Depression was so bad. We helped put money in the family coffers."

Today, Gershenzon may not have all the moves she once had, but she still tap-dances – these days, while seated in a chair during a weekly class at Sacramento's Sierra 2 Center for the Arts and Community.

Tap-dancing keeps her young and nimble, both in mind and body.

"She loves being the center of attention," said her daughter, Maura Hirning, 65, a lifelong dancer herself who takes the tap class with her mother.

"Really, I kind of shy away from it," said Gershenzon, teasing.

"I don't know about that," her daughter replied.

Outside Gershenzon's comfortable Citrus Heights townhouse, it was a drizzly morning – but inside, it was warm and bright, with a plate of Gershenzon's freshly baked pastries on the kitchen table and two decades' worth of videos cued up to show off Gershenzon's tap performances with the now-defunct Sue Geller Dance Studio in Fair Oaks.

Here she was in shiny gold satin, part of a troupe of older tap-dancers in a boogie woogie production number at the studio's annual recital at the Hiram Johnson High School auditorium.

And here she was tapping in a troupe clad in housedresses, which she and the other dancers whipped off to reveal oversize T-shirts painted with curvaceous, va-va-voomy, bikini-clad forms.

"I'm the short one on the end in all of the productions," said Gershenzon.

From the videos, it's clear she was having the time of her life. For years, she also tapped with a group called the Hot Flashes, then the Happy Tappers.

The world, it seems, is filled with older women reliving the production number dreams of their tap-dancing youth – and keeping themselves sharp and healthy while doing so.

Growing up, Gershenzon never attended dance class. The world of her childhood had no such frills; her parents, immigrants from Russia, never had the money for extras. Rather, her older brother, who loved to dance, taught her a few tap steps in the alley behind their house.

"My brother was kind of a natural," said Gershenzon.

He went on stage first, using the stage name Hy Lowe instead of their real surname, Brahinsky, followed by his backup act, the Lowe Sisters, tapping along behind him. But after age 18, when Gershenzon stopped performing on stage with her sister, she didn't dance again for almost four decades.

Life was simply too busy: She went to college, worked soldering radio boxes for B-25s manufactured at a North American Aviation plant and married a young U.S. Army Air Corps navigator, First Lt. Nolan Gershenzon.

Life was also hard.

"My husband was shot down over Germany on his 10th mission," Gershenzon said. "I was pregnant. He was missing in action for 30 days, and then they confirmed that he was a prisoner of war."

After 13 months in a POW camp, her husband was liberated by Gen. George S. Patton's troops.

The Gershenzons' first daughter, Reatha, died when she was 4 months old.

After the war, Nolan Gershenzon remained in the Air Force for two decades, and the family – which grew to include Mauria, born in 1947, and Monica, born with severe epilepsy in 1953 – hopped from one air base to another, landing in Sacramento in 1958.

"I was in the chorus of every show at the bases," said Gershenzon.

"But you didn't take classes," said Hirning.

"I had a handicapped daughter to care for," her mother said. "The opportunity didn't present itself."

At age 55, she joined her first adult tap class, and she's been dancing ever since.

"I dance because I like it," Gershenzon said. "It's good for you. You meet a lot of nice people. Today tap dance is very athletic, and your physical stamina can't take much of it."

She's the oldest student in her weekly tap class now. Because she has vertigo, as well as a history of heart and lung problems, she sits and does the steps only with her legs.

"You have to downsize what you do," she said. "Your body deteriorates fast. I don't do arms much, but I sure do my legs. It keeps my feet moving."

More than anything else, it keeps her spirits high.

"Tap also keeps her mind really sharp," said Hirning. "It's hard to learn a number quickly and then do it. That's the exciting thing about dance in general, how it stimulates her body and mind.

"She has a good time."

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