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McCallum: Dancing Feet

This month I’ve become obsessed with tap dancing - not doing it myself - yet - but watching online videos and searching for adult tap classes in Vermont that I might take with a friend who’s also obsessed with it.

We were bitten by the bug after attending a performance at the Weston Playhouse of Broadway’s quintessential tap dance show, 42nd Street. The spectacular musical transports audiences to the glitz and glam of 1930s New York, as did the lavish movie version that lifted spirits and provided escape to millions of Depression era Americans. The 1933 film was an extravaganza in black and white that tap danced away the fears of economic ruin and raised the bar on how musicals were produced.

The evening performance I attended had a full house and at intermission the audience streamed out with smiles on their faces and spring in their steps. People were animated, practically bouncy, and I felt like executing a few stamps, shuffles and pullbacks myself - if only I’d known how. So what is it about tap that makes us grin and want to click our heels?

I asked a dancing friend in her sixties about her tap days and she lit up with enthusiasm. “It was the most fun I’ve ever had dancing,” she said. “The teacher got laryngitis from shouting out the moves over the din of our clacking feet, just like in old show biz movies. Everyone was happy, then we all suffered a mild bout of depression when the class ended.”

Her experience echoes research about the connections between tap dancing and health. Besides burning calories, this fancy percussive footwork elevates mood, reduces stress, improves balance and cardiovascular health, strengthens bones and provides a rat-a-tat workout for your brain. Oh, and it also builds great legs.

Tap’s value for health and well being has not been lost on those who work with senior citizens. A quick internet search turns up videos of the Happy Tappers, Red Hot Mamas and the Tap Pups - happy hoofers from their fifties to their mid-eighties. While their skill level may vary wildly, they are all smiling broadly.

I think of tap dancing as playing high octane music with your feet, similar to what a drummer does but in unison with a group and jazzed by the metallic thrum of many shoes hitting the floor. It’s got humor, precision and attitude. Even the vocabulary of tap has punch, with dance combination names like the riffle, paradiddle, slurp and 3-beat shuffle.

At the end of 42nd Street , the heroine sang the show-stopping title song with its famous words, “Come and meet those dancin’ feet.” I know the people seated behind me took the words to heart because they tapped while sitting down. Their stomping didn’t bother me though, because I was already thinking ahead to how I would do my own “shuffle off to Buffalo” on the way to the car.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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