Never-too-late tap dancers rise to top of the heap

Published 12:10 am Saturday, June 6, 2015

MOCKSVILLE — To the strains of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” the little town blues melted away this week as the “Donnettes” practiced for their tap-dancing recital.

For several of these women — a hardy bunch from the Salisbury Civitan Club — it was their first dance performance ever. As Sinatra might say, they were making a brand new start of it.

“Keep in mind,” instructor Donna Cesario said as they readied for the first of four complete run-throughs, “you have to know where center is, or you’ll be off balance.”

This was a dress rehearsal, so the Donnettes — named for their dedicated coach of the Spotlight Dance Co. — were neatly dressed in blacks and whites, with some red bedazzling thrown in on their vests and bow ties.

Through all the rhythmic tapping, circling, flourishing arm movements and Rockette-like line kicks, the women kept both their top hats and smiles firmly in place.

They followed Ol’ Blue Eyes’ singing to a big finish before tapping their way off stage, and you had the feeling if they could make it here at the Brock Performing Arts Center, they could make it anywhere.

Their recital the next night had to be moved here to Mocksville because of the infestation of bees at Catawba College’s Keppel Auditorium.

Cesario danced along as one of the 11-member troupe, but for the third practice run she sat out in the audience, trying to make some final tweaks. She greeted the parts she liked with shouts of “Wooo!” and applause, but toward the finish she saw a problem.

“I just need to fix that ending, right?” she said, noting that her girls had somehow lost that center she had mentioned before and were too far left.

The Donnettes performed the opening for Spotlight Dance Co.’s spring recital, then made way for much younger, shorter dancers.

Practicing together since the winter, the group included Cesario, Debbie Hoffman, Natasha Small, Emily Haynes, Hazel Trexler Campbell, Connie Peacock, Jane Smith-Steinberg, Karen South Jones, Lee Wagoner, Vickie Harris and Catherine Dalton.

Those last five women are all members of the Salisbury Civitan Club. Smith-Steinberg is an experienced dancer, but for Jones, Wagoner, Harris and Dalton, taking the adventurous plunge into tap dancing was a first.

They also have called themselves the Civitan Tap Dancing Divas.

Blame Jones for persuading the others to join her, but by the time this week’s recital came around, they were all accomplished dancers, and they plan to keep on going when classes resume in the fall.

“Who takes dancing up at 65?” Wagoner said. “But it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s a great workout, too. It’s better than selling fruitcake.”

Civitans, you know, sell a lot of fruitcake when the Christmas holidays roll around.

The Donnettes represented quite an age range, from women in their 20s to the 92-year-old Campbell, who also has made a name for herself over the years as a Senior Games competitor. Every age decade was represented, except the 80s, and Smith-Steinberg said she’s getting close.

The dancing experience also varied widely. Hoffman, for example, was a longtime instructor herself. She was taking her 2-year-old granddaughter to Spotlight Dance Co. early in the year when she saw the other tap-dancing girls in the hall, and they talked her into joining them.

Hoffman loved the tapping and the camaraderie. “It beats rocking and knitting,” she said. As Hoffman warmed up for the rehearsal, it was obvious she knew what she was doing.

“Showoff,” a couple of the ladies complained.

The rookie tap dancers received many different reactions to their decision to take lessons. Jones’ husband, Mike, asked her whether she didn’t think she was “a little bit old for that.”  Karen Jones rolled her eyes in the retelling.

“If not now, when?” she had asked in return.

Jones said Cesario had told the women early on they would learn to dance with their ears, and Dalton recalled how Cesario said they would find themselves learning the steps while doing something else, such as driving to the beach.

Cesario was right, the women said, because they kept replaying the movements and music in their heads. It was great mental calisthenics.

“We’re actually getting younger every time we tap,” Jones said.

The practices were held from 7-8 p.m every Monday, with a lot of tapping at home in between.

“It entertains dogs tremendously — husbands, not so much,” Jones said.

Cesario also added a couple of extra practice sessions prior to the recital.

There’s just something about tap shoes that’s special, Jones said.

“You put them on your feet, and they’re magic,” she added.

Wagoner sees an advantage to having waited this long to start tap dancing.

“It is so much more fun to do this as an adult than as as child,” she said, “… and it keeps us off the street.”

Peacock, who started last year, said she found inspiration in Campbell, who has been tap dancing with Cesario for almost 20 years.

“Dancing is better for exercise than exercise, Campbell said after the dress rehearsal. “I’m so glad I can walk out of here.”

She credits all the years of tap dancing for keeping her fit and flexible.

“I commend them,” Campbell added of the rookies. “They have done very well.”

Smith-Steinberg said recitals aren’t the only place you might see the Donnettes perform. In the past, they have danced at the VA Medical Center, senior lunches and at an Easy Street festival. They are available for performances, she said.

Is Cesario patient with the new dancers?

“Oh, God, yes,” Dalton said, and the others laughed heartily.

“Today was the first time she called us down,” Jones added.

But the women found their center again, and they left the Brock Performing Arts Center  feeling A-number one, top of the list and queens of the hill.

Their vagabond shoes were longing to stray.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or