When Mary Ann Tripp hears the music, the pain of her bum knee floats away and magic happens on the dance floor.
The rhythm transports Tripp and her students to younger years when the joints were freer and the posture straighter, allowing feet to fly through rousing clogging of “Louisiana Saturday Night.”
“The music gives buoyancy to your body and takes away the aches and pains,” said Tripp, a small, muscular woman with impeccable posture and a passion for anything dance.
Just focusing on the movement, nobody would guess that some of the women commanding the dance floor, including 87-year-old Tripp, are pushing 90. They are fluid and free, stomping, strutting, clicking and clapping.
Welcome to Tripp’s Exerdancing class that she has taught for Community Colleges of Spokane ACT 2 program since 1985. The class is an institution, with the majority of students dancing with Tripp for at least 20 years. Betty Krouse, 85, has been there since the beginning.
“Oh, has it been that long,” said Krouse, shaking her head. “No wonder I have a sore toe.”
Yet, this sisterhood welcomes and wants newcomers. This year the class size dwindled to eight, worrying Tripp and Jaclyn Jacot, the director of ACT 2. It needs more feet to keep going. Tripp fears if the class ends, it might be the end of her and the other dancers who she says need the music and dance to stay alive. Tripp said it would be the “frosting on the cake if former students who are in the Act 2 of their life” return to class and dance.
Men are welcome, too, but Tripp said not many have had the patience it takes to learn the steps and keep practicing.
“We will encourage and help them,” said Rowena Sargent, 87, who has danced with Tripp for 18 years. “This is what keeps us going. We’d start stiffening up, and we don’t want that.”
Phyllis Mast, 79, recently joined the class and is thrilled with the fun and openness. It’s easy for newcomers to get started. She’s trying to learn the clog dances so she can practice when she heads south for winter next month.
“You’ve just got to keep moving,” said Mast, who still runs her psychology practice in addition to playing music.
When the notes of the “Maple Leaf Rag” began, the class’s youngest member at 64, Carrie Druffel, a five-year veteran, seemed to have an impromptu clog-off with Phyllis Tonning, 89, who raised her heels high and picked up speed. The women’s arms flapped like chickens as they kept time. The smiles were as big as the steps.
Afterward, Krouse excitedly told how she clogged “Maple Leaf Rag” for her 70th high school reunion in July in Chinook, Montana. Five of 15 living classmates – of 33 graduates – attended. Krouse said nobody was surprised she still was dancing.
For years Tripp called the class clogging, but the name recently modernized to attract more seniors who are looking for some cardio and stretching in addition to dancing. Tripp also lead the Happy Feet Cloggers, a senior clog-dancing group, for decades.
Even though Exerdance is a senior class, Tripp said anyone older than 18 is welcome to join the class; this session meets Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Sinto Senior Activity Center. Participants must register through Community Colleges of Spokane.
Nobody is too old. Bad backs, sore hips and arthritis are not excuses. Some women sit out a few dances and rest. Others modify and only do the steps that are comfortable. Just shuffling in place to the beat is allowed. The whole idea is to move and enjoy the camaraderie that helps not only keep the body fit but also the mind sharp. Remembering all those moves must equate to a crossword puzzle.
The music in Tripp’s class is unusual. She still uses a Newcomb portable record player and a cassette player hooked into the record player. The songs start with the classic drop of a needle sound and then that turntable sizzle, pop and hiss. Somehow the nostalgic quality enhances the magic and welcoming feel of the class.
Tripp taught dance for 60 years and her body shows the benefits of a life of good fitness. Her first memories are of dance lessons.
“Even though money was tight during the Depression, my folks made sure I had my weekly lesson,” she said.
At 14, she charged the neighbor kids 10 cents per lesson. As a married woman with two small sons and needing work, Tripp started a dance studio in her basement at her mother’s urging. It was the best advice her mother ever gave, providing Tripp with a lifelong career and passion that sustained her later on as a single mother of three.
In 1953, she took formal training at Bernice Casey’s School of Dance, focusing on ballet, which Tripp says is the true foundation of all dance. Four years later, she moved to her home on Country Homes Boulevard and installed a hardwood floor over the cement basement. She taught hundreds of students and put on big recitals for which the mothers made most of the costumes from newspaper patterns designed by Tripp. Her dancers also performed for the Manito Lions Club.
“I’m always thrilled when I’m in a store and someone recognizes me and we share precious memories,” Tripp said.
One of her favorite students was her own granddaughter, who she taught from age 4 until she graduated high school.
The class begins with basic ballet moves and stretches.
“Breathe in, arms go up,” Tripp told the group in a commanding yet gentle voice earlier this month. She laughs that she has gotten less militant in her advanced years. The slippers tap, tap on the floor.
Then the pupils do several ballet routines before transitioning into line dancing with more upbeat, twangy rhythms.
“You can feel the exercise,” Tripp said. It’s true, just one long dance routine has the women sweating and turning on the fans.
“Line dancing is good to learn so if your husband doesn’t want to dance you still can,” said Joan Jurey, who didn’t start dancing until age 62. Now at 86, Jurey religiously attends the classes even though she sits out some of the songs to rest and sip water. While on the bench, her feet still move to the music.
After the line dancing, the women change into clogging shoes that have clickers on both the toes and heels. Tripp said clogging is the precursor to tap dancing. It’s noisier with fewer rules and restrictions. The room erupts in clicking and clacking as the dancers take to the floor to stomp out “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”
“Even if you have problems, you forget about them and listen to the music and dance,” Tripp said.
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