At one of their last weekly dance practices together, six of the eight current members of the Classy Tappers gathered at Carmichael’s Mission Oaks Community Center, readying themselves for a couple of final holiday season performances. Afternoon sunlight streamed through the screened window as this trim and energetic troupe of retirement-age tap dancers ran through their routines.
They kicked and twirled. One number after the next, they heel-toed and toe-heeled. But for some reason, the choreography that member Lydia Simonette had created for “A Holly Jolly Christmas” seemed particularly problematic.
“We forgot the shuffle ball change,” said Simonette, 77, a retired state worker, glancing at a sheet filled with the dance steps she planned.
“We need to practice this one,” said Linda Warren-Pelkey, who still works, selling real estate.
With a Dec. 1 performance at a California State Employees Association luncheon, time to rehearse is short. And so is their time together.
The Classy Tappers have been a troupe for almost 25 years, giving about a dozen performances annually at local senior facilities, adult day care programs and community lunches. But no matter how much they love to perform – and they do – their group has never been all about the spangle and glitz of their show costumes or the clickety-clack, jingle-jangle of tap dancing.
“You know what we have the most of?” said Carol Stone, 78, a retired schoolteacher and the Classy Tapper with the longest tenure. “Friendship.”
Along the way, they have celebrated the weddings of offspring and the births of grandchildren. They’ve seen each other through illness and rough patches, and they’ve endured the loss of husbands and friends. Among the deceased is their founder, a dynamic tap teacher named LaVerne E. Mecham, who established the Classy Tappers in the late 1980s and died in 2009 at age 86.
And now they’re disbanding.
“People are calling to put us on their calendars in the New Year,” said Esther Carl, 76, a retired teacher and Classy Tapper for 20 years. “And I’m saying, ‘Sorry.’ ”
It’s her fault: She admits it. She took over the scheduling and promotion of the Classy Tappers when Mecham left the troupe a couple of years before her death, and now, Carl said, she’d like a break. “I want to continue with tapping,” she said, “but not running the group.”
They have danced all their lives. Carolyn Vind, 78, was only 4 when she began tap and ballet lessons. Becky Horton, 69, took dance as a kid, too. Simonette studied ballet as a young girl. And then the responsibilities of adult life got in the way, and they returned to dance at 50 or 60, when the kids were grown and they had time.
Theirs was a generation raised on the wholesome showiness of Shirley Temple and her on-screen tap routines, which may account for the popularity of seniors’ tap-dancing classes and groups throughout the Sacramento region. And, while the Classy Tappers are splitting up, most of the women will be joining other tap groups. They will continue dancing – they can’t imagine life without it.
Now, in their advancing years, they can appreciate dance for its heart-healthy qualities as well as its benefits for balance and memory: Numerous studies support the idea that cardiovascular exercise helps keep older bodies and minds fit.
Besides, it’s fun.
“I could dance every night,” said Vind, who remembers tapping on stage at Fresno’s Rainbow Ballroom when she was a teenager.
“As long as your feet and legs hold up, you can do that,” said Stone.
“When you’re dancing, you don’t think about anything else,” said Warren-Pelkey. “Your feet or back hurting goes by the wayside.”
When they perform their routines for patients in assisted living centers, the Classy Tappers find that they’re often older than the care home residents – older but in better shape.
“This is a therapy like you wouldn’t believe,” said Stone. “We’ve had people with cancer. We’ve had deaths. All the things that happen to elderly people. And we still dance.”
And so they run through “A Holly Jolly Christmas” one more time, working to remember all of Simonette’s tricky tap steps, not thinking too much about the legacy of the troupe as it leaves the stage.
“Maybe it’s to bless as many people with dance as have blessed us before,” said Warren-Pelkey. “That’s my legacy, if I could learn the steps.”