Dancers tapping their fountain of youth

The Portable Performance Troupe on the stage at the Marco Lutheran Church. They tapped to music such as Shine, Nobody But Me and Rockin' Pneumonia.

Sharon Yanish/Special to the Eagle

The Portable Performance Troupe on the stage at the Marco Lutheran Church. They tapped to music such as Shine, Nobody But Me and Rockin' Pneumonia.

Sparkling with rhinestones, satin gloves and ruffled mambo hats, members of the ReCreation Tappers of Southwest Florida shuffled, scuffed and shim shammed their way onto the stage at the Marco Lutheran Church.

Back stage was a flurry of excited laughter as the dancers changed into feathered headdresses and sequined ties. The girls slipped into their tap shoes, warmed up with a few test flaps and ball changes, then lined up in the wings, ready to make their entrance.

The show, reminiscent of a Broadway musical, delighted the church’s Day Out Club as the girls tapped to musical favorites like “Rockin’ Pneumonia,” “Mambo Italiano” and “Hello Dolly.”

Five years ago, the idea for a tap dance group sprang from their founder Pat Vogelsang. She wanted to personally challenge to herself. “When I turned 50, I decided I wanted to do stuff that I’d never gotten to do before — and one of those was tap dance.” She found one small group that practiced at Cambier Park and loved it so much, she knew there would be more adults who felt the same way. All they needed was inspiration. In her summer home of Milwaukee, she met a tap dance troupe and invited them to Marco to perform, hoping that would stir excitement. Her plan worked. Interest in tapping blossomed, and more dance studios in the area began offering classes to adults. After organizing a group of dancers, Vogelsang and her husband, Paul, built a 10’ x 15’ traveling stage on a trailer equipped with lights, and the ReCreation Tappers were launched. They began tap-tap-tapping all

over town.

“We bought ourselves some snazzy outfits and tapped on Fifth Avenue (South) in front of the Sugden Theater,” said Vogelsang. Their 25-member Portable Performance Troupe has tapped in the Mardi Gras show, in the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. parade, and recently they joined the Marco Island Strummers for a show. They bring holiday merriment to the Fifth Avenue South’s tree lighting ceremony and Christmas parade. More recently, these ladies tapped their hearts out at Frontier Days in Golden Gate. Some in the dance group prefer not to perform, but take dance classes and cheer for the gals who are on the stage.

Vogelsang’s challenge to herself has turned into a dream come true for others. “In a short time we’ve experienced great growth,” she said. Starting with just a handful of dancers, the group’s roster has swelled to

70 members.

Program Director Judi Baruck said dancing with the group is a big time commitment. They’re all volunteers, so for this not-for-profit group, social events and simply driving back and forth to lessons and performances take a big bite out of their other activities. Attending twice weekly dance classes with extra show rehearsals, the women could easily put in over three rigorous hours a week on the dance floor. That’s a strenuous routine at any age, but even more amazing for these dancers, since their ages range from 53 to 79. In addition to their regular routine, the group hosts guest teachers and master dance workshops.

Baruck, who for 22 years owned and directed the Judi Nelson School of Dance in Miami, is thrilled to see older people interested in dance. “Teaching adults who are so enthusiastic is a real treat,” she said, pointing out that within the group there are varied levels of ability from beginning to advanced. “Some only danced when they were kids. They heard about us and just had to put on tap shoes!”

Jeanne Horvath, one of the founding members of the group, was an early partner of Bob Fosse, famous award-winning choreographer. She comes to the tappers with extraordinary talent and background in dance. Horvath’s devotion to the group is valued highly by all the members, and she attends every event, whether she’s “on the boards” or not. Horvath’s son, Jimmy, who is a choreographer and dance instructor in New York, has joined the ladies in rehearsals when he’s in town, giving them invaluable advice and a professional flair to their recitals.

“Everybody loves it, or we wouldn’t give it this much time,” said Judy Carr, who divides her year between Pennsylvania and Marco Island, and has been dancing with the group for three years. She first heard about the ReCreation Tappers from an article in the newspaper and has been with them ever since. “Tap dancing takes a lot of concentration, practice and perspiration,” she said. “But most of us older amateur dancers are in love with dance and make time to take lessons and learn new routines constantly.” Training your “muscle memory” takes repetition of the steps and routines until they are automatic, said Carr. “Your feet have to know what to do without your brain telling them.” If you have to stop and think, she said, the music leaves you behind.

As dance captain, Greer White is command central of the tappers’ organization, making sure the troupe knows when and where to show up for events, reminding them which costumes to bring and generally overseeing the productions. White, who also serves as publicity chairman, has been dancing for six years and, among plenty of other benefits, she finds regular dancing builds stamina. “Tapping is good exercise and it’s good for your

memory, too.”

According to the tappers’ newsletter, the Einstein Aging Study found that dancing was the one activity that actually improved memory skills. Learning new dance routines and remembering the steps for a performance challenges the brain. In addition to the mental and emotional benefits, the steps are lively and, by their very nature, provide

good exercise.

Marco’s Jill Rickelman agrees. “Tapping has definitely become a wonderful source of joy in my life and the friendships are great, but it also keeps you thinking and keeps those old bones moving — all necessary ingredients for a better life.” Her mother was a tap dancer and Rickelman began ballet lessons at 8 years old. With her background in local theater, she’s familiar with the stage. “When I came to Florida, I really needed something besides golf and walking on the beach to keep me busy. I’ve always had music and dancing in my life.”

With their performing members spread out between Marco Island and Naples, the girls take classes locally, then get together to rehearse for performances. Natalie Strafford gives classes twice weekly to 13 Marco ladies at her Island Dance Academy and has choreographed their routines, as well.

“Natalie is nothing less than fabulous,” said Judy Carr, one of Strafford’s students. “She’s a trained teacher with a great deal of natural talent — something that can’t be taught.”

Members of the group who travel north during the summer months take classes while away from Florida so they don’t get rusty. “We all have the music of the dances we’ve learned and now even some videos of the dances, so we can take these wherever we go,” said Jill Rickelman, who spends part of the year in Durango, Colo.

While away, the seasonal members stay in touch with their dance sisters in Florida so the bond stays strong. “Dancers are very special people,” said Carr. “We probably have very little else in common except dance, but it is enough to break down age, income and background barriers,” she said. “We part each spring, then come back together in the fall or winter, just as if we’d seen each other a few days earlier!”

Through the glitz and glitter of their high-energy performances, these amazing women transmit the exhilaration and happiness dancing gives them right out to their audience. “Tap dancing brings back that child-like joy and excitement,” said White with a grin. “I just have to be a part of this.”

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