Six years ago, Joan Hamilton retired from her job as an elementary physical education teacher and began a new career in show business. But that wasn’t exactly what she intended.
Hamilton’s father had been a song-and-dance man who tapped his way through vaudeville routines. He’d ensured his daughter and her twin brother knew their shim sham from their shuffle step, and Hamilton developed an abiding passion for tap.
After retiring, she decided to get a small group of grandmothers together to tap-dance, just for fun. That group of four has grown to 35 active members, ages 53 to 82. And they’ve taken their act out of the dance studio and on the road, performing at elementary schools, Red Hat gatherings and charity fundraisers.
“These girls are relentless,” Hamilton said, laughing. “They love to perform and go out and dance for people.”
On May 12, the Tap Grandmas, plus one grandpa, strutted their stuff at a recital at the Southside Senior Activity Center. Hamilton said Bill Kennedy, the lone man, has “taken the beginners under his wing.” But you couldn’t tell the novices from the advanced dancers during the hour-long performance.
The room quickly filled to capacity with friends, fans and family members, including lots of little ones. After all, what’s a Tap Grandma performance without some tap grandkids in the audience?
The dancers chose the Charleston for their opening number and wowed the crowd, twirling their long strands of pearls. “Only risqué grandmas do the Charleston,” Hamilton quipped. Next, wearing silver-sequined vests, they tapped out a sultry razzle-dazzle.
These ladies aren’t content to watch life go by from their rocking chairs. Joan Caulfield, 72, hadn’t tapped since high school, but she picked it up again at 50. She joined Tap Grandmas after moving to Spokane. “The whole group is happy,” she said. “They’re just energetic, active women.”
Active is putting it mildly. Tap dancing is an aerobic workout, and Caulfield has reaped its rewards. “I’m diabetic,” she said. “Dancing actually helps lower my blood sugar. It’s my favorite kind of exercise.”
Hamilton gave the dancers a chance to catch their breath between numbers by offering a bit of background about the music and the routines. “Dad would make us do push-ups if we looked down at our feet,” she said. “I was the strongest girl on the block!”
The music of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” gave way to the toe-tapping tune of “Tutti Frutti” as the group shimmied to the music of the ’20s and rocked to the beat of ’50s tunes.
Some members have added clogging to their repertoire. Hamilton explained the difference this way: “You use a heavier step in clogging. It’s harder on the knees.” That’s because cloggers perform with more up-and-down body movements and pound the floor with their heels. Even the sound is different, Hamilton said, because “tap shoes have a single tap and clogging shoes have a double tap.”
The audience responded with enthusiasm as the group clogged to the “Clarinet Polka.” Bill Kennedy followed that number with his “mostly beginners” as they tapped out “Hot Mama.”
Tap Grandmas had their origin in rhythm tap, a highly syncopated form of dance that transforms the dancers’ feet into percussion instruments. Hamilton and her crew demonstrated this style in a spirited performance of “Wang Dang Doodle.”
“My dad’s looking down now, and he’s loving this dance!” Hamilton said. “We’re gonna slam it out for you!” And they did, to the crowd’s delight.
Throughout the performance the dancers switched accessories several times, but the one accessory that never changed was the dancers’ glowing smiles.
“We love to dance just for the dancing, not necessarily the performance,” Jay Warren said. She’d seen the group practicing at the Southside Center and told her daughter about it. Her daughter encouraged her to join, but Warren demurred. However, when that daughter gave her a pair of tap shoes for her 80th birthday, accompanied by a certificate for tap dancing lessons, Warren ran out of excuses.
A year later, she’s still dancing. “There’s no pressure, and the memorization and concentration is good for our minds as well as our bodies,” she said.
It’s also good for the community. Tap Grandmas’ charity of choice is Spokane Public Schools’ Homeless Education and Resource Team program. Hamilton estimates the group has raised between $6,000 and $7,000 for the program over the years.
“We dance for the homeless kids in the Spokane School District,” she said. “Our money goes for their extracurricular activities.”
As the audience cheered after the final number, one toddler yelled loudly above the applause, “Yay, Grandma!” The grandmas beamed.
Hamilton said, “As long as I can move, I’m going to be dancing.”
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