As a little girl, Anna Couch loved tap dancing so much she would tap her way down the grocery store aisles behind her mother. Decades after taking lessons from Betty Lott and, later, Lott’s daughter, Deborah Guist, she still remembers the joy. Which is why she didn’t hesitate when she saw Guist’s recent Facebook post about trying to start a six-week adult tap class.
“It’s just sort of in your blood,” said Couch, who now spends an hour every Tuesday evening with other women who share her enthusiasm. “When Deborah said they were going to do the class, it was a no-brainer; I was going to do it. I just knew it would be fun.”
Guist said, “I always wanted to teach adult classes, but when I owned my full-time studio (English School of Dance), I was always too busy with the children’s classes and running the business 24/7. There simply wasn’t time.” But since she sold the studio and retired in 2013, Guist has missed dance perhaps even more than she anticipated. So when friend and Ballet Columbus owner Laura Beth Berry instigated the idea of forming an adult class, with Guist as instructor, she was thrilled.
“We had no idea whether or not there would be enough interest,” Guist said. “Well, lo and behold, we are now 19 strong!”
On a recent Tuesday, Guist’s voice rose above the opening notes of “New York, New York” coming from a laptop parked on a chair in the Columbus Arts Council theater.
“I really want to hear those heels!”
The “heels” were on tap shoes worn by a line of ladies on the stage nearby. They are real estate agents, boutique owners, college students, stay-at-home moms, retired businesswomen, even a few dance instructors. And while they were intent on steps like shuffle, ball change, step-heel and Lindy hops, not a one of them — at least for a few moments — was stressing over reports due, appointments to make or carpools to run.
“It’s a ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ night,” said participant Emily Moody later. “Nobody is judgemental and they’re such sweet people.”
“It’s an escape into a different world,” added Tami McBryde who, like Moody, was a student at the English School of Dance as a girl. “It kind of takes you back to childhood — and who doesn’t want to bring back childhood memories?”
The group ranges in age from 13 to 70-something and spans the spectrum from no-experience to stage-savvy.
“It includes ladies who have never danced, former students of mine, moms of former students and even three other dance teachers,” Guist explained.
Freida Burt specializes in ballroom dance but wanted to try out tap.
“I always thought it would be fun to tap, but growing up in Fayette, Alabama, there wasn’t much opportunity. So I thought, why not do it as an adult?” she said.
Moody, a real estate agent, signed up “on a whim.”
“I took from Mrs. Betty from sixth- to 12th-grade, and I thought, it’ll be just like I’m back in Mrs. Betty’s class,” she said.
Are the skills coming back to her?
“They do in my mind, but my feet just won’t cooperate,” she laughed.
The inherent exercise is a plus for Moody.
McBryde agreed. “Don’t let anybody tell you tap dancing is not an aerobic workout,” she said.
In class, the music changed to “Put On A Happy Face,” and the percussion of metal taps striking the wooden floor in unison built to a crescendo. Each shoe has two metal plates or taps, one at the toe, the other on the heel.
The dance style has roots in the fusion of ethnic percussive dances including African-American dances, English clogging and Irish jigs. From early minstrel shows to vaudeville and beyond, tap enjoyed a heyday thanks, in part, to dancers like Bill “Bojanbles” Robinson, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Later, practitioners including Savion Glover, Gregory and Maurice Hines and Dule Hill put it in the spotlight. Even a little penguin named Mumble did his part in 2006, bringing tap to the forefront in the animated film “Happy Feet.”
The dancers agree: There’s just something compelling about tap.
“When I danced, tap was always my favorite,” said Couch. “I think it’s just being able to make noises with your feet — it’s sort of telling stories with your feet.”
Her daughter, Kendall, 13, is the youngest class participant. After attending the first one to watch her mom, she was invited to join the adult group. Kendall currently studies dance at a local studio.
“Yes, it’s making noise with my feet,” she said about tap. “I think that’s my favorite thing about it.”
Sarah Thames lives in Pearl, but drives to Columbus once a week for the class and to visit family. The Mississippi College senior dances with the Montage Theatre of Dance at Hinds Community College.
“What I enjoy most about tap is that it’s similar to playing an instrument. When you’re dancing, you’ve got different time steps, different rhythms … It’s something that you watch, but it’s something that you listen to as well.”
The class seems to satisfy something for each participant, whether it’s “me time,” exercise, staying tuned up or revisiting happy memories.
After Cynthia Williams’ family moved in 1977 to Columbus, where her father pastored at First United Methodist Church, she became a student at English School of Dance. Now she owns her own studio, Dance Divine Ballet Co. in Starkville. Her days are spent teaching children age 3 to 18, so tap class gives her a chance to be on the other side of the equation.
“I just wanted to do something for myself, to enhance my skills, just get out and be with other dancers my age,” she said. “In this, I can focus on my love and passion for dance.”
Guist mirrors the emotion.
“I’m just loving it!” she said. “Aside from just the dancing, I’m loving the social interaction with these lovely ladies. We enjoy quite a few laughs along the way.”
The current class may be near its end, but Guist dreams of starting a performance group for those who are interested, and starting a class for people 50 and up. It is true, she said, that “Once a dancer, always a dancer.”
“I guess it’s just in my blood, always has been, always will be. It is who I am.”
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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