Jackie Bong Wright

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The Snappy Tappers Senior Dance Troupe

By Jackie Bong-Wright

Magic Tap Dance

“Bravo! Bravo! Encore!” exclaimed John, a patient in a wheelchair at Western Health of Alexandria in Virginia. Maggie, in a wheelchair next to him, kept clapping her hands, “Please, another dance,” she begged. The 25 other wheel-chaired spectators in the audience were so elated by the six Broadway-like shows that they did not want to go back to their gloomy sick beds. “When are you coming back,” asked another patient. They all wanted to prolong these precious moments, and did not want the show to end. It was a cold afternoon in mid-January 2004, a new year’s treat for the ailing residents at the health center, and a happy juncture in their delicate lives.
Not all residents watched. Some were still in bed, under respirators and wires, not able to enjoy the spectacle.
An hour earlier, the Snappy Tappers started the tap dance show “Cabaret.” At the sound of the music, six seniors, clad in multicolored collant tops with pink mini-skirts, stepped out on the right side and kicked left, forming two lines. They held their pink hats straight up and kicked high, then clacked their shoes with shuffle ball-change steps. They did shuffle hop-back steps and side cramp-rolls four times. The back line crossed the front line with step scuff-heels and cross steps, then reversed the lines. They jumped feet together then feet apart, lunging finally in a majestic ending pose.
After “Cabaret” other dancers alternated to do “C’est si bon,” “Jail House Rock,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “42nd Street,” and finally “Chorus Line,” wearing different outfits each time. They performed different figures. They swirled around boogie style, their shoes clacking in shuffle steps and flap ball-changes. They swung their arms, then their hips, and swayed their pointed feet, making what were called “sugars.” They turned right in place, reversed with cross flap heel, shook their heads and shoulders. They kicked forward, right and left, and did cakewalk kicks and grapevines.
“It was magic,” a patient called out. Rommie Behrens, the troupe’s energetic director, radiant and chic in her glittery costume, thanked the patients and promised to come back in the future.
Each of the 20 dancers that day had a carry-on suitcase filled with costumes, while they hand-carried their hats and shoes. They needed a large fitting-room to change their attire. Those with full-size cars brought their colleagues, pooling their effort and energy. They will perform at a nursing home in Falls Church later in January, then at a church in Great Falls the following month. They are in great demand indeed, and put on about 20 shows a year.

An Average 70, But Young-at-Heart

Rommie, who had studied dance in her youth, took up dance again at age 50. She started teaching tap dance in 1987, and has since had 50 students at Lincolnia Senior Center in Fairfax. They have volunteered to perform well over 250 shows for various community and health centers as well as nursing homes and on television. “The performers love to dance, to entertain, and to have fun. It’s good health for our body and mind,” confided Ralph Kuethe, one of the dancers. “Their average age is 70 years young; some are over 60 and others over 80.” With the motto ‘Have Taps, Will Travel,’ these enthusiastic troupers proved that they had a wonderful way to stay young and fit. “We are close, like a big family. When called, we go without hesitation, except when we get stuck in bed with some illness. That happened to my wife, who used to teach the beginners at another center,” he concluded.
Rommie, 76, choreographs and modifies most of the dances. Twice a week, she rehearses for nearly two hours with her students, who have danced with the group from at least three years to over ten years. She herself has been an acclaimed tap dancer and ballroom dancer, winning trophies and praise in many contests. “The more we dance, the more energy we have, the more positive we get, and the more we want to give to the public,” she enthusiastically stated.
Undaunted by a lifetime of health problems, Rommie beat all the odds by staying active physically and mentally. At 10, she was found to have melanoma (skin) cancer. Later she contracted kidney, bladder and external carotid artery ailments, and now breast cancer. In the hospital 20 times, she came out alive and refreshed each time. Her father was a physician, so, at 26, she was motivated to read and do research on diseases, which helped her cure her own sicknesses in conjunction with her doctors. “I am a survivor and a Christian, and I believe in the joy of life. Faith keeps me going,” she revealed. Rommie also finds time to be a member of the Messiah United Methodist Church and a volunteer at the Fairfax Hospital Auxiliary. Her husband, a rocket scientist, passed away 9 years ago.
Rommie was the director of the Ms. Senior Virginia Pageant for five years. In 1992, she herself was crowned Ms. Senior Virginia after she competed in four categories: interview, evening gown, talent show, and philosophy of life. The same year, she and her troupe joined 5,500 other dancers who tapped in unison to the Disney tune “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” along 34th street in Manhattan. That was during Macy’s Annual Tap-O-Mania marking the 80th birthday of dance movie legend Gene Kelly.
In 1994, she and her husband Fred won the gold medal in ballroom dancing at the Northern Virginia Senior Olympics. This is another form of dance that is not only athletic, but also social and elegant. He, in his tuxedo, and she, in her lavish 60-yard chiffon skirt and splendid sequined top, performed the Waltz, Foxtrot and Samba. The Behrens enthralled the spectators and wore their golden years with great distinction.
Carol Vaughn, professor and head of the tap program at American University, sees an educational significance in learning the history of the U.S. through the history of tap. She told the Washington Times that it was the only native dance form that coincided with the struggles of people in this country, ranging from slavery to abolition and civil rights. It was a mix of African, Irish, British, and, later, Latin influences. Tap dancing peaked in the 1930s and ‘40s with famous dancers Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly, and has had a resurgence in modern times. Congress passed a bill in 1988 declaring May 25 as National Tap Dance Day.