Tap-dancing senior citizens defy old age

By Katie Daubs

With a skull and the words “death before dishonour” tattooed on his arm, the last thing anyone expects former football player Duncan Carmichael to do is tap dance.

In fact, if the typical tap dancer is seven-year-old Shirley Temple, it’s safe to say that no one would expect this sort of activity from any of the members of Happy Tappers.

But when the music comes on, and the assembly hall at the Good Companions Seniors’ Centre on Albert Street is transported back to simpler times, 66-year-old Carmichael, better known as “Butch,” is furrowing his brow and concentrating on instructor Pat Black.

It’s hard work learning to tap dance, especially when the average age of the dancers is 72.

“The biggest challenge is remembering the steps from week to week,” says Black. “It’s excellent for your memory because you have to think ahead all the time.”

Black started the class five years ago and the group is made up of intermediate and beginner dancers who practice every Thursday. Most members of the intermediate class perform at personal care facilities, political get-togethers and nursing homes around the city. The group is also a regular at the Tulip Festival and can be seen every spring on the Centrepointe Stage, where they have, in the past, performed in a show with legendary Ottawa singer Dick Maloney.

The dancers come from all over Ottawa. Some have been dancing together for four years and Black says the group is like a family.

“We’ve been through illnesses and we lost one of our dancers about a year and a half ago,” she says. “It’s hard.”

But when the going gets tough, the tough get tapping. And it isn’t so easy with some of the obstacles that aging brings.

Lorraine Farrall, 80, is in the intermediate group. As a young woman, she joined the Royal Canadian Air Force doing administration work, and sometimes she danced with the entertainment unit.

“It was nice because you heard music all day,” she says.

Ever since she was little, dancing has been her passion, and she tries to come every week, even though she has been sick lately.

Butch, in the beginner class, also faces roadblocks. At 6’2”, with size 14 feet, he is an oddity in the tapping world. He searched for tap shoes but couldn’t find any in his size. Undeterred, he decided to make his own out of aluminum frying pans he purchased at a thrift store.

He says he enjoys tapping because of the people and the terrific exercise.

But he hasn’t always been this willing to dance. Playing football for the Royal Canadian Navy’s Shearwater Flyers, he says he thought dancing was a “wimp’s game.” But he now admits that learning to tap is more difficult than working in the navy.

“Three years ago I was a klutz, but it’s starting to come together,” he says.

Things have certainly come full circle for Marjorie Berrie, the oldest member of the group who will be 83 next month. She is in the intermediate group, but doesn’t perform in public. She danced when she was a little girl, but it wasn’t until her husband became sick and a friend suggested she take up a hobby to get out of the house that she took it up again. She’s been dancing ever since.

“I’m going to dance for as long as I can,” says Berry. “Because they say I give them inspiration.”