Step Sistas tap into midlife love of dance

Louise Rastu, front, owner and director of A

Louise Rastu, front, owner and director of A Life Time of Dance, leads the tap dancing auditions for The Step Sistas in Huntington. Behind her, from left, are Andrea Laveris of Huntington, Bunny Pokrassa of Huntington Station and Marianne Massaro of Melville. (June 4, 2013) (Credit: Heather Walsh)

Lined up and poised to begin, the women wait for the signal. As the music starts, a strong voice calls out: "Five-six-seven-eight!" On cue, the dancers are tapping their way through one of the routines in a two-hour audition in Huntington.

Some of the 10 tryouts are fairly new to the rhythmic pounding, and a few came just for another chance to dance. But what's at stake for those who want it is a spot with the Step Sistas, a performing tap group for women ages 46 and older.

In line with the other hopefuls is Sandy Stewart, who first saw the group perform three years ago at the Maria Regina Residence in Brentwood, where her mother lives. Back then, she never envisioned herself as one of the entertainers, but when she learned about an open audition for the group this past summer, Stewart decided to try out for a place on the line.

The audition tested basic tap knowledge along with the dancer's ability to follow direction and learn a new set of steps. Louise Rastu, choreographer and artistic director of the Step Sistas, led the session, calling out steps for the dance routines.

The Step Sistas formed three years ago, when a group of women who had been taking tap dance lessons together for five years decided they wanted to perform occasionally, explains Rastu. They do shows at nursing homes, libraries and senior centers, usually charging $150 to pay for expenses, and also serve as a training group for The Red Hot Mamas, a professional troupe of tap dancers ages 53 and older, who perform at an intermediate to advanced level. Rastu is also co-artistic director of the Mamas, founded in 1990 by Sandi Bloomberg, a former Rockette.

Like a Broadway show

The Sistas are scheduled to perform a holiday show in December at the Carillon Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Huntington, where the group performs twice a year. "The registrants [who come for the center's day programs] enjoy it," says Lynn Tam, 35, a recreational therapist at Carillon. "The dancers are very entertaining and talented." Audience members tell her "they feel as though they're at a Broadway show or seeing the Rockettes. And the costumes are amazing."

Stewart, 65, of Brentwood, started taking tap lessons when she was in her 30s and continued off and on over the years. The lessons augmented what she'd learned as a child, when she took some lyrical and modern dance classes.

Stewart began taking lessons with Rastu about a year ago. When she first heard about the audition, "I hadn't intended on going, but when a friend asked me if I was going to go, I thought more about it," says Stewart, a retired Suffolk County Supreme Court clerk. "I'm not working, I have plenty of time, and I love to dance."

Practice, practice, practice

Once you become a Step Sista, the group requires a serious time commitment. They practice about two hours a day, two days a week, and more frequently when there's an upcoming show. Dancers provide their own shoes, tights and leotards, while the group provides other gear, such as vests and hats. Lessons are $15 each, on a pay-as-you-go basis.

"I didn't have butterflies" at the audition, Stewart says. "Knowing Louise, I figured she wasn't going to make me do anything ridiculous. And the tryout was a lot of fun." She may have a hard time with a new step or routine at first, Stewart says, "but once I get it, then I can relax."

That concentration showed during the audition. Stewart focused on Rastu as she demonstrated the steps, then looked at her own feet, counting to herself as she moved through the patterns.

"Tap is really percussion with your feet," says Maureen Schebler, assistant director of the Sistas. She and Toni Wortman, co-artistic director of the Red Hot Mamas, helped evaluate the auditioning dancers. "It's hard to learn because of the weight changes," says Schebler of East Northport, who doesn't want to tell her age. Pointing out the moves as the dancers work through a sequence, she says, "See their feet? Hop, shuffle, step, flap, step, stomp. They take eight single-time steps, then -- here comes the tricky part again -- the triple-traveling time step."

After an introductory warm-up exercise, Rastu instructs the women: "Come off your centers, ladies, and do stretches." She teaches them a three-step sequence performed to music from "Singing in the Rain," runs them through it as a group several times, and then asks them to perform it as she evaluates them individually. "I'll give you a partner -- misery loves company," she jokes as she pairs them off for the first of several run-throughs. Rastu also teaches the dancers what's called a traveling step that helps them move around the floor, then leads them through the flap step-ball-change routine several times so they can memorize it and work on their technique. In addition to introducing steps to see if dancers can learn a new routine, she's evaluating their stamina.

A career in dance

Rastu, 51, began dancing at age 7, teaching at age 16, and trained in New York City. She performed and did choreography for the North Shore Dance Theatre, beginning in the mid-1980, and danced at events on Long Island through the 1990s, when she began staging choreography for the Mamas.

At the Sistas audition, she is mindful that her dancers are older, but she maintains a steady pace. "I'm aware that their bodies might be hurting, but I know they also want to feel they've gotten a good workout," she says. "Every person is trainable. I work with that [concept] and teach technique and a specific way of holding and moving your body."

Andrea Laveris, 59, of Huntington came to the audition with only two months of tap lessons behind her, although she has a background in modern dance. "It seems I'm better at it than I expected," she laughs. "It's fun, and something I've always wanted to try. It's like learning a whole other language."

She moves smoothly through the routines as the group runs through different sets of movements, showing their ability to do basic moves and glide across the floor with a traveling step. "I love the freedom of expression," Laveris says. "It's a release of emotions that words can't express."

During a break, while Rastu queues up new music, the women grab water bottles and mop their faces with towels as they catch their breath. Classes and rehearsals are held at the Jan Martin Studio of Dance in Huntington, where Rastu rents space. Some of the women at the audition are Rastu's students who viewed the audition as a chance to practice. The mood is friendly and supportive, and the camaraderie among the women who know one another is evident.

Often, says Alice Sprintzen, 66, of Syosset, a member of the Step Sistas since the beginning, the Sistas grab lunch or coffee after class.

Lessons can be physically and mentally tiring, especially when there's a new routine to learn, but several tappers agree that learning the steps and the tricky timing helps keep them sharp. "You're kind of walking through it till your brain gets it," Laveris says. "My brain gets tired, my body gets tired." She's been enjoying the learning curve and all the hard work. "It's been better than I expected, and I love it."

Stewart is glad she took the plunge and tried out. A few days after the audition, she and Laveris said yes when Rastu asked them to join the Step Sistas. "Tap is a very happy mode of dance, a lot of movement," Stewart says. "It's very freeing, and it looks great. And we have a wonderful camaraderie."

Depending on scheduling, she may come full circle, performing before Caterina Stewart, her 88-year-old mother, and other residents at the Brentwood nursing home.

Want to dance?

From September through June, The Step Sistas are required to be at the dance studio twice a week -- once for rehearsal and once to take a technique class. In July and August, there are no rehearsals, but the Sistas must take a once-a-week technique class with director Louise Rastu. For more information, contact Rastu at 631-680-4271, or go to alifetimeofdance.com.

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