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Sizzling Seniors

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Tap dance keeps the Huntley Hoofers and Hunks young

By Maureen Janson

“Dancing Queen” blares from the stereo as teacher Sandy Oldham demonstrates a move, calling out, “I want you to be here on the one! Lift the elbows, ladies!” About 30 pairs of elbows go a little higher and the clicking of tap shoes begins to drown out the music. Faces display a cross between smiles and deep internal focus. Some dancers count to themselves, some mouth the steps, and some sing along with the lyrics: “You are the dancing queen, young and sweet . . . you can dance . . . having the time of your life!”

Having the time of their lives is what this group, the Huntley Hoofers, was doing on a Monday night last summer. They tap dance and rehearse in the Meadow View Fitness Center studio of Sun City Huntley, a retirement community in the prairies of Illinois, about 50 miles northwest of Chicago. They also laugh—a lot.

The week of my visit, Oldham asked the dancers to dress in black. Both excited and nervous, the class is rehearsing a dance to The Beatles’ “Drive My Car,” shuffling away with plastic steering wheels in their hands. “Arms have to be big!” Oldham shouts. “If you hit somebody, I don’t care!” The group bursts into laughter, relieving the tension created by having an observer in their midst.

Oldham motions for one dancer to move into the front line. Reluctantly the dancer steps forward, saying, “It’s OK, she’s going to say, ‘Change lines,’ ” which Oldham promptly does.

Another dancer calls out for my benefit, “I still have two left feet and Sandy doesn’t care!”

Laughter fills the room once again to which Oldham replies, “Well, I sort of care.”

The practice resumes, and Carol Kaiser, the youngest in the group at 55, looks my way. “Sometimes she treats us like her freshman gym class!”

The Huntley Hoofers and Hunks of Sun City Huntley, Illinois (led by Sandy Oldham, opposite center), are having the time of their retirement lives with tap dancing.

The Huntley Hoofers and Hunks of Sun City Huntley, Illinois (led by Sandy Oldham, center), are having the time of their retirement lives with tap dancing.

Oldham jokes when asked her age: “I only admit to being 59.” Now retired, but with seemingly endless energy, she volunteers about 12 hours each week with the Hoofer and Hunks program. “And a lot more when we have our major show in October. It is my passion!” she says.

Oldham majored in modern dance and physical education at the University of Wisconsin, and taught high school physical education and coached gymnastics for more than 30 years. One day, a group of her faculty colleagues at Palatine High School in suburban Chicago approached her, expressing interest in learning tap dance. She hadn’t tapped since age 13, but she began leading an early morning class for teachers once a week and has been tapping ever since.

The tap program at Sun City Huntley started in 2003 when an ad in the retirement home’s monthly activities magazine attracted more than 80 women residents, including Oldham, to a meeting for interested tappers. The proposed two classes could not accommodate such an overwhelming response. With her previous teaching experience and comfort in working with large groups (“I taught PE classes for 47 freshmen; 30 adults wouldn’t be a problem!”), Oldham volunteered to teach some additional classes. “Just about anything you want to do is here,” she says. “You can take yoga, ballet, jazz, line dancing, ballroom dance, or tap.”

She has since taken over all of the evening tap classes and divided the women’s groups into an elementary level called Step It Up (not really beginners, she says) and two more advanced levels. A men’s group, the Huntley Hoofer Hunks, was added about two years ago. More women than men live in the community—“It’s the nature of the beast,” says Oldham—and tap has appeal because they don’t need a partner.

Oldham reminds the dancers often that not only are they getting great exercise dancing about 1,500 steps in a 45-minute class, but that tap also stimulates the brain. “I start many routines at once,” she says. “We use a lot of props to keep things interesting.” (Some dancers arrive with suitcases to hold all of their props.) “At the end of the two-hour advanced class, everyone is sweating. “Today I go from 3:45 to 7:45 p.m.—a long day for an old lady!” Oldham says, smiling. But she has recruited three other volunteer teachers to assist her in demonstrating and reviewing material.

Dana Rich gives about eight hours a week as one of the assistants. To her, being in the Hoofers means more than just dancing; it means being a part of a tight-knit group. “If there’s a need, we come together in support like a family,” she explains. When one of the dancers received a cancer diagnosis, for months the group sent cards, brought food, and called on the phone. And when she returned to class, the others ceremoniously presented her with roses.

“My husband passed away last year,” says dancer Janet Becker, “and the ladies in my tap group helped me get through many hard times. It is more than a group of ladies dancing together; it is a group of friends you can count on.”

Adds Oldham, “We have lost one Hoofer, and that was difficult, but a reality in a senior community. We focus on life going on. These are brave women to try something new at this age!”

Time spent together outside of class is a draw for the Hoofers. Each year there is a Hoofer/Hunks picnic, and costume-making parties have become a highlight for the women Hoofers. Meeting at someone’s home, the ladies cut, paste, and sew costumes. “We always have snacks and wine,” Oldham explains. “We do have a tendency to go through a lot of wine!” Rich enjoys the group so much that she cuts short her visits to her winter home in Florida to minimize being away from classes and get-togethers.

Not all Hoofers are starting tap from scratch. Mame Christoff, affectionately called “Mom” by the group, is the oldest Hoofer at age 81. She reminisces about starting tap in 1933 for 25 cents per lesson, and of inspiration coming from Shirley Temple. “I enjoy my lessons,” she says. “It’s good for my memory, good exercise, and keeps my osteoporosis in line.”

As a child, Marylin Bobowski, now 71, wore tap shoes several sizes too small from a lost and found. “I still love the sounds taps make when I dance,” she says, “but now I have my own shoes and they fit me just fine!”

“I enjoy my lessons. It’s good for my memory, good exercise, and keeps my osteoporosis in line.” —Mame Christoff

Some Hoofers feel that dancing has contributed to their speedy recovery after surgery. Sandra Tomiano, 72, wanted to do something to stimulate both her brain and body. “When I told my friends of my plan to tap, they told me to forget it. I have had my right hip replaced three times. Well, I proved to them all that I could do it. I’ve been with the program for six years.”

And six weeks after a complete knee replacement, 80-year-old Marie Marino, who has danced since childhood, returned to class. “I don’t feel like I’m dancing the way I was years and years ago, but I’m dancing and that’s what’s important,” she says.

“As you get older, you have to make choices,” says 64-year old Mary Ann Catuara. “This is my choice. I stopped playing tennis and bowling. Tap is where it’s at.”

Nearly 70 women dance with the Hoofers, and at first there were no men. But Steve Sawatski had added tap dance to his list of things he always wanted to do. Shy about being in a class of all women, he approached Oldham, who told him if he could get six guys together, she would start a men’s tap class.

“Taking that as a challenge,” says Sawatski, “I started talking up the idea with friends and some of my teammates in the Sun City softball league.” To his surprise, 6 men attended class the first night, and within a month or so, the group grew to 10, then to 14. Oldham dubbed the class “Huntley Hoofer Hunks,” and for his part in starting the class, Sawatski has become affectionately known as “Father Hunk.”

“As typical males, we certainly goof off a lot,” he says. “But every one of the Hunks would tell you how much we look forward to Thursday nights. And we do take tap dancing seriously.” The Hunks have perfect attendance, get good exercise, and there are always plenty of laughs. “There’s one guy who’s 60 and doing something new for the very first time,” says Sawatski.

Oldham designs choreography specifically for the men, choosing songs such as “Big Man in Town,” “Bad to the Bone,” and “Standing on the Corner.” Rich and Kaiser help with the Hunks. “They let us come to class,” they laugh, rolling their eyes. “We teach them the routines, and then they go home and change the steps!”

The Hunks like to improvise or add silly gestures or hip wiggles to the choreography. But Sawatski brags, “At last year’s recital we got a standing ovation! My three daughters, my three granddaughters, and my sister came. They even brought me flowers.”

The Hoofers’ annual performance, held in the Drendel Ballroom of the community’s main recreation center, is open to residents, family, and friends. Oldham choreographs with that in mind. “Last year we did “Happy Feet” with 60 women dressed as penguins, and the grandchildren enjoyed that one,” she says.

Their repertoire also includes dancing with walkers to the song “Only an Older Woman” by Peter Allen and with brooms to “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” from Annie. “My folks are busy, so we limit our performances” says Oldham. “And we are just old people dancing, so I try not to take it too seriously.”

In 2004, Oldham took a group to Chicago to study with Lane Alexander of Chicago Human Rhythm Project, which led Alexander to invite the Hoofers to perform as part of National Tap Dance Day. And he plans to have them appear again. “They were wonderful and brought the house down,” he says.

Recalling their performance, Oldham says, “I admire these men and women who take up tap and are crazy enough to let me put them onstage for the first time in their life in downtown Chicago. They absolutely amaze me.”

A feeling of freedom resonates among this generation of dancers—through their joyful dancing, their laughter, and the stories they tell. Kathy Render’s tale encapsulates it. As a child, her father forbade her to dance, claiming that only “wild women” took dance lessons. She’s been with the Hoofers since the first day and says, “Father is gone now, so I can be as wild as I want to be.”

As Kaiser puts it, “We have nothing to lose. We’re grown up now. It takes more guts than playing cards, but it could be your last-chance dance.”

By the end of my visit, Oldham’s smile has not faded. “I don’t want the pressure of a paid job,” she says. “I’m retired and I volunteer because I love my Hoofers and Hunks.” I follow Oldham’s car as we pull out of the parking lot. Her license plate reads, “I love dancing.”

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