Happy Hoofers

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Happy Hoofers dancer Lu Johnson, 85, (front, left) strikes a pose during a dance number at a recent rehearsal. — Photo by Sara Hall

The Happy Hoofers tap dancers may physically be between the ages of 67 and 88, but they all have the enthusiasm and talent- not to mention the legs- of a 20-year-old.

“Just because you’re old, doesn’t mean you’re too old to dance,” said tapper Loretta Baker, 84, of Newport Beach. “Everybody has dance (and music) in their hearts.”

Many of the dancers started tapping between ages 50 to 70, except for 67-year-old Donna Cheseboro of Newport Beach who danced when she was younger, took 40 years off, decided to start again and began tapping with Happy Hoofers.

Loretta Baker, 84, (back, middle) dances with the Happy Hoofers during a recent practice. — Photo by Sara Hall

“I paid for my first costume with my first social security check,” said longtime hoofer, another term for a tap dancer, Lu Johnson, 85.

Many of the hoofers agreed that after retirement, when they had extra time on their hands, seemed like a good time to learn.

Baker said she started dancing at 60 after her husband died. She didn’t know what to do with herself, she said, so she took up tap.

“I got a whole new lease on life,” said Baker, who also sews all the costumes for the group.

The group meets through the Newport Dance Theater, owned by Nancy Isbell, who also teaches the senior tap group as well as other classes at NDT.

Dorothy Jo Swanson started the Happy Hoofers over 40 years ago. Isbell has owned the NDT studio for about six years and she has been teaching the Happy Hoofers for over 10 years.

The hoofers perform all over Orange County at convalescent homes, seniors centers, fraternal organizations, military events, private parties and various other locations. Their next public show is July 28 at the theater, they will be performing with the Newport Dance Theater dancers.

The Happy Hoofers tap their shoes and tip their hats at a recent rehearsal. — Photo by Sara Hall

“The joy we see in the people’s faces when we go to the convalescent homes [and other centers] is fabulous,” said dancer Lorrie Collins, 80. “It’s worth it just to see one happy face.”

The group does a variety of songs; the majority are old classics with a few modern tunes thrown in.

Music can sometimes trigger a memory or a feeling in some of the older audience members, Baker said. They may not remember much of anything else, she said, but a song can bring back memories of war, weddings, family, friends, loved ones, childhoods and other life events.

Audience members sometimes cry, laugh, and tell stories about what the song means to them.

“(I love tap for) the pure fun of dance and entertaining others,” Collins said. “We’re all hams.”

Dancer Char Kanemaru, 67, said tap also helps their memory, all the steps and dances they need to remember helps keep their minds sharp.

The Happy Hoofers make an entrance carrying during one of their more memorable dances at a recent rehearsal. — Photo by Sara Hall

The tapping also helps their health, since the exercise helps keep them in shape and also their social lives, since they meet new friends through the tap group. The camaraderie between the dancers is irreplaceable, she said.

“And it’s good for your morale,” Baker said.

The group incorporates new dances in two or three times a year, but many were created by Swanson and have been performed by the group for many years.

“The choreography is so good,” said hoofer Carol Shallin, 70. “The song fits the music… The character of the song is portrayed in the actual movements.”

The Happy Hoofers are tap-tap-tapping away. — Photo by Sara Hall

The Newport Dance Theater also has another, but slightly younger group of tap dancers. Their average age is about 50, Isbell said. Some may be headed into the Happy Hoofers within the next few years. They don’t perform though, other than the year-end recital with the rest of the company.

Many of the dancers in the younger class have been dancing for 20 or more years and several since they were little kids.

“You definitely have more energy when you’re younger. And maybe your form and style is a little better. And your body doesn’t wiggle as much,” Moss said. “But you appreciate it more.”

Many of them have experience in other styles of dance as well, primarily ballet and jazz.

Students of Isbell's other adult tap class practice a number during a recent rehearsal. — Photo by Sara Hall

“I hope I’ll still be tapping when I’m 84,” one of the dancers said.

It’s great for the mind and body, the dancers agreed.

“It has certainly given me a fun old age,” Baker said.

Even Baker’s significant other, Bob Cooper, has gotten involved. Cooper is the DJ for the group and Collins’ husband, Jim, controls the music.

“Our men are work horses,” Baker said. “If we don‘t have both of our men, we don’t have a show.”

Even if a person has never danced before or they’re not sure they’ll be any good, the Happy Hoofers still encourage them to come on down and try, Chesebro said.

“If you can walk, you can dance,” Baker said. “As long as your feet don’t give out or your hips or [other injuries], you can dance forever.”

Visit www.newportdancetheater.com or call 949-646-4234 for more information.

The Happy Hoofers all dressed up and ready to perform. — Photo courtesy Nancy Isbell
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