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Stepping Out : Participants find that dancing increases their mobility and offers a chance for socializing.

February 20, 1992|ROBYN LOEWENTHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After 55 years in show business, dancer Vicky Simons, 70, still has a bad case of "happy feet." And for five years she has been teaching other seniors to "shake their booties" during her weekly tap-dancing classes at the Goebel Senior Adult Center in Thousand Oaks.

"This class brought me back to life," Simons said.

The twice-widowed Simons had become reclusive after the death of her second husband nine years ago. And she was 66 when she attended her first tap class at the senior center. Simons admitted that before then, she had never associated with older people because her husband was younger and she didn't know any.

But now as their teacher, Simons shares her passion for movement with about 100 senior hoofers. And she endorses dance as an antidote for the effects of aging.

The classes are very popular with the seniors, said Mark Schrock, Goebel's recreation supervisor. "A lot of them always wanted to take tap lessons when they were younger. But they had families and weren't able to do it," he said. "Now they enjoy the classes for the exercise and socialization."

Many of Simons' older students are enthusiastic about their improved mobility. And some believe that learning new dance routines has helped their memory.

"I always wanted to learn how to tap-dance," said Maryann Montagna, a 66-year-old retired widow. "I kept debating and decided, 'Get your buns out and try it.' "

That's what the Siegels did too. "We love the teacher and the tap-dancing. We live our lives around the Monday class," said Pauline Siegel, 59.

Tap students at the Goebel center are so enthusiastic that they raised $2,000 to purchase framed wardrobe mirrors that they donated to the center's dance studio in September.

Simons began dancing at age 10, but her career almost ended when nerve damage from a tonsillectomy left her partially deaf. She learned to lip read and never told anyone in the O'Neill Sisters Kiddies Revue in San Francisco that she could not hear the music during rehearsals. Back then, someone played piano--there were no tapes or speakers to amplify the sound. So she was able to fake it by counting and feeling vibrations through the floor.

The full orchestra on opening night almost blew her--and her career--away. Simons said it was the first time she could hear the songs they had been rehearsing. But she managed to match the movement of her feet to the music and enjoyed a long professional dancing career that included appearances in several MGM musical films and touring in revues until 1960.

After her husband's death nine years ago, the 30-year resident of Newbury Park converted two rooms of her home into a large dance studio complete with mirrored walls and hardwood floors. Here she gives children free lessons. She even lends them tap shoes selected from dozens hanging along a hallway.

In exchange, Simons taps the terpsichorean talents of the children. Many of her students--old and young alike--buy their own costumes and perform in shows at nursing homes, senior centers and retirement communities.

Last year "Vicky's Tap Dancers," composed of her students of all ages, entertained senior citizens at more than 31 free shows. And she is always busy rehearsing classes for their annual dance revue, which will again be held in June at the Borchard Center.

"I spend all my working hours dancing, listening to new music and choreographing routines, " Simons said in her Billie Burke voice. "I have not had a vacation in 13 years. . . . This is all heaven to me."

"If you know how to flap, shuffle and ball-change, come on down," she said. "Performing is optional. We are here primarily for tap-dancing, for good exercise and good health."

LESSONS ON TAP

Free tap-dance lessons for senior citizens age 60 and older are sponsored by Conejo Valley Adult Education through the Conejo Recreation and Park District at the Goebel Senior Adult Center, 1385 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks. A $10 registration fee is required from those under age 60. A four-week session of classes is planned for Mondays in July. Class hours are as follows: beginners, 8:30 to 9:45 a.m.; intermediate, 9:45 to 11 a.m., and advanced, 11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. For details call 497-1639.

Most senior centers in the county offer free or low-cost instruction in a variety of dance styles including jitterbug-swing, line, tap and folk dancing. For details, call your local senior center or parks and recreation department.

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