Seniors discover the joys of percussive dance.

Stroll by the northeast corner of University Avenue and Vandalia Street and you may hear the clicking of tap shoes emanating from the studio at Keane Sense of Rhythm. Ellen Keane moved her tap dancing school to 2161 University Ave. last year, and she and her staff of teaching artists are conducting tap dance classes for children and adults several times a week.

tap dancing
Carla Bode leads Tappy Hour, a class for tap dancers age 55 and older at Keane Sense of Rhythm, 2161 University Ave. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Among Keane’s more popular classes are tap dancing for people age 55 and older. Learning something new can be challenging, especially as we age, but it can be good for the brain. And getting up off the couch and moving is an obvious benefit to the body.

A benefit for balance and bones

“The classes (for people 55 and older) are low-impact, which means no jumping or hopping,” Keane said. “There’s some dancing on one foot, which is good for balance, and the percussive movements build bone calcium.” In fact, three of her students with bone-density issues have seen improvement after a year of tap dancing, she said.

Keane, the school’s cofounder and executive director, grew up in an Irish-American family who loved to dance. She switched to tap dancing at age 28 and has never looked back. Now over 55 herself, Keane found that people in her age group were interested in tap dancing but at a somewhat slower pace than younger dancers. So she created a tap dancing curriculum designed especially for those over 55 and another for those over 65.

The classes for older adults are offered on weekday mornings and afternoons. No experience is necessary. Tap shoes are the only required equipment, and they are sold to students at a discount.

Partnership with community ed

Many students first learned about Keane’s studio through the Saint Paul Public Schools’ Community Education program. Registration for the spring session of her Tap Dance for Wellness Ages 55-Plus class opens on March 14. The six-week session begins April 20. The cost is $80, and class size is limited to 20.

Born in the USA

Lea Hall of Macalester-Groveland has been taking tap dance lessons at Keane for the past two years. She is a retired professional dancer who first learned tap and ballet in childhood. “Tap generates endorphins,” Hall said. “It’s also one of the few dances native to North America.”

 

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Tap dancing was first developed in the late 1800s among Americans of West African and Scottish, Irish and English descent. It reached its peak in popularity in the 1920s in vaudeville variety shows, at nightclubs and in Broadway musicals. 

Testimonials of area seniors

Jane Sevald of Highland Park said she is glad she added tap dancing to her physical fitness routines, which also include yoga and rowing. She started taking tap dance classes last fall through the Community Education program. She said she enjoys it much more than the ballet she did in the 1960s and 1970s. Ballet, she added, is too competitive and not as much fun.

Wendy Dean of Macalester-Groveland is now taking the beginners’ class in tap dancing at Keane. “Two of my neighbors asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said. ‘No, I’m not a dancer.’” However, she was persuaded to give it a try and has been having a lot of fun. “Anybody can do it,” she said. “The teacher is excellent and makes everything accessible.”

Although Dean still works full time, she was able to squeeze the class into her schedule. She and friend and classmate Elizabeth Evans will even practice at home on tap dance floor mats.

Evans, 83, had not tap-danced in 50 years. The class, she said, “has expanded my horizons. It’s wonderful. We do little routines. The instructor is good at tailoring the class to everyone. I recommend it for anybody.”

Though the majority of Keane’s students are women, most classes include between one and three men. However, the men typically stick with it and enroll in continuous classes, Keane said.

Fired up for National Tap Dance Day

Keane is once again planning to produce a public performance at the Como Pavilion on May 27 as part of National Tap Dance Day. She invites her students to join in the show. “We encourage students to get on stage,” she said, “but only if they want to. There’s no pressure.”

Saint Paul Community Education offers several dance classes, including Boomer Ballet, line dancing and modern dance. For more information, visit commed.spps.org.

For information on Keane Sense of Rhythm’s classes, visit tapcompany.org.

— Carolyn Walkup

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