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Heal & Toe : Seniors Citizens at Goebel Center Use Fancy Footwork of Tap Dancing to Keep in Step With Better Health

November 14, 1987|MIKE WYMA | Wyma is a Toluca Lake free-lance writer.

As a cassette player thumped out the opening bars of a tune from "A Chorus Line," tap-dance teacher Vicky Simons and 30 of her students hung in the air for an instant like acrobats before a leap.

One grandmother's mental concentration was so intense that she stopped her constant gum chewing. Another's brow furrowed in preparation.

A moment later, the music hit a downbeat, and the sound of clacking tap shoes filled the room at Goebel Senior Center in Thousand Oaks. An ankle wobbled here and there, and feet at times hit the floor in less than staccato unison.

But Simons was pleased.

"Good, good," she yelled. "If it's not perfect, who cares?"

The dancers, a class of beginners who range in age from 57 to 78, hoofed their way through one song and practiced another, then gave way to an advanced class. An hour later, an intermediate class took the floor. By the end of the morning, about 80 senior citizens had taken tap lessons.

"It's our most well-attended program," Mark Schrock, director of the senior center, said of the Monday tap classes. "We started it three years ago, and it took off like wildfire."

Simons, 66, has been teaching tap dancing for 40 years.

"This beginners' class is the most enthusiastic bunch of people I've ever had," she said. "They have arthritis, diabetes, surgeries, pacemakers, everything, and they won't stop dancing."

Simons, who is pretty enthusiastic herself, got a faraway look in her eyes. With the Christmas show coming up, she has a special dream.

"We need more men," she said. "If I could have a line of 15 tap-dancing men, it would be the first one in California."

This particular day, however, she had to settle for three or four.

"We expect to be on Broadway very soon," joked one of them, Bud Fischer, of Thousand Oaks. Fischer, 65, and another student, Ted Weise, 62, of Agoura, said they were talking one day during a rehearsal break and learned that they had attended the same high school in Brooklyn.

"Can you believe it?" asked Fischer. "Not only that, but it turns out we're both retired school teachers and retired musicians."

Although the seniors grew up in the heyday of such movie tap dancers as Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell, Ray Bolger and Gene Kelley, many of them are doing the steps for the first time.

"All my life I wanted to tap dance," said Jeanann Ross, 59. "But, when I was young, they didn't have classes for beginners. You were just thrown in with people who already knew what they were doing."

"My son is a professional dancer, and my husband and I followed him to Boston and Europe to watch him," said LaVerne Martin, 65, of Westlake Village. "But I never took a step myself, and I can't believe it because it's the most fun I've ever had."

Gloria Hostetter, 65, said she makes the drive to Thousand Oaks from her Moorpark home just to be part of "the best senior tap dancing around."

Everyone in the class seemed to have a story about how tap dancing helped pull them through a crisis. Teaching it lifted her from a depression brought on by the death of her second husband four years ago, Simons said.

Viola McKenzie, 72, credited tap dancing with helping her overcome health problems.

"I was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and the doctors said I'd never get over it, but I have," the Thousand Oaks woman said. "I've built up my muscles with dancing. You don't feel like you're exercising."

Tap-dance class isn't all fun and games.

"Kids, never move your hands in front of your face," she implored as the advanced students rehearsed their show-stopping number. "Go over it or under it, but don't hide it. And watch that line! You got to stay in a line. And kids, don't let your arms droop. I don't want to see any droopy arms."

Simons declared that the show-stopper will prove to the world--or those who attend the Goebel Center Christmas show, anyway--that "we seniors still have a trick or two left in us."

"We're going to do a rumba tap," the teacher disclosed. "It's the first time you'll ever see it because I made it up."

Chances of a 15-man line are slim, but she expects to add at least one male dancer.

"He couldn't be here today because he's on the operating table," she said. "But we'll get him back pretty soon."

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