Corliss Whitney can still do a split just like she did when she was 17. That was 65 years ago.
"I hadn't danced since 1953 - it was like turning the switch back on," said Whitney, 82, of resuming tap dancing when she was in her 70s. "It felt wonderful." Whitney, of Rockville Centre, choreographs dance routines for a group of 20 women known as the Seasoned Steppers, the volunteer dance troupe affiliated with Ms. New York Senior America, an annual talent pageant for New Yorkers age 60 and up. The current Steppers range from 66 to 84 and all are former pageant contestants.
Whitney has a past that helps explain her skill: She was a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall in the 1940s and '50s. She formed the Seasoned Steppers after competing in the pageant in 1992. "When I met some of the gals at the pageant, I said, 'Maybe I can teach you a Rockette-type routine.' I had never taught [dance] before," she said. "and they had never tapped."
The first sessions were held in the attic of Whitney's home. For most of the women, it was their first time in tap shoes.
"We were so nervous - I remember the [other] women writing down 'step,' 'slap,' 'left,' 'right,' " said Marleen Schuss, 76, a former Seasoned Stepper who is the director of Ms. New York Senior America.
The Steppers have come a long way. They now give about 30 performances a year at hospitals, schools and assisted living centers in the metropolitan area.
A typical hourlong performance features three dance numbers with costume changes in between. When the dancers introduce themselves to the audience, each proudly announces her age.
"You have to see the surprised looks on their faces," said Lorraine Alberghine, 73.
"Age is just a number - it means nothing," said Dolores Meglio, 77, public relations coordinator of the group, comparing it to a dress size.
Smiles stay with age
On June 4, about 100 members of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Senior Citizens' Club gathered at the Jamaica Avenue School to watch the bright-smiling Steppers perform dances to Broadway tunes including "Anything Goes" and "Come Follow the Band."
The dancers, all from Long Island or Queens, were outfitted in shimmering red mini-dresses that showed off their Rockette-like legs. The show concluded with Whitney's trademark split, which drew gasps and applause.
Dancing revitalizes the Steppers, Schuss said. About a third are widows, and "you need a new lease on life when that happens to you," she said. "That's how I got involved, just to be busy - it's the best volunteer job in the world."
Rehearsal is a time when the dancers can leave their troubles behind. "You can actually see the weight lift off their shoulders" when they walk in, Whitney said.
At the June Claire Dance Center in North Babylon, between eight and 20 Steppers show up to rehearse once a week - twice a week when the annual national and state pageants approach.
Whitney co-choreographs the rehearsals with Marianne Stahl, 68, who ran her own dance studio in Elmont for 26 years. Now Stahl, who entered the 2007 state pageant, is back in the studio, once again teaching - only these days, her students are her contemporaries.
She tones the instruction down a notch for the women. "We just modify certain steps," she said. "We don't jump around like the kids would do."
Stahl asks that the Steppers spend at least 15 minutes a day rehearsing the steps, to commit them to memory.
When the women practice at home, they use a videotape of the rehearsal and typed notes outlining the steps.
But rehearsal alone can't cure stage fright. To do that, "one show is worth a million hours of dance class," she tells the women.
"The first few times, they come up on the stage so frightened and petrified," said Bob Geltman, state coordinator of Ms. Senior America New York. "And all of a sudden, they just blossom. It's an amazing transformation."
Inspiration in tap shoes
After a recent gig at an assisted living center, Whitney was approached by a resident using a walker. "She looks up at me and says, 'I'm going right back to my room, putting on my shoes and practicing my time step' -- that's the effect that we want to have on people," she said.
The Steppers have the occasional mishap on stage, but like true professionals, they tap on. Alberghine recalled a recent performance when a woman next to her in the dance line lost her balance and fell. "We picked her up so fast and never missed a step," Alberghine said.
Physical problems that come with age don't appear to slow down the women for long. Seven years ago, Whitney missed a few months after undergoing surgery on a cyst near her brain.
Returning to the Steppers "was like a second life," she said.
Gladys Kikta, 80, had knee surgery last spring, but six months later she was tapping once again. "I'm so glad to be back doing exercise again. It's really helping me," she said. She can't yet master the not-quite-high kick choreographed for "You're a Grand Old Flag," but plans on returning to the stage in September.
Such dancing is certainly a healthy aerobic activity for this age group, said Matthew Colucci, a physical therapist based in East Islip. "It's great for them - it incorporates everything," cardiovascular workout and muscle-strengthening, into one exercise, he said.
So in addition to the joy that comes with performing, the dancers are getting increased oxygen to their brains, which Colucci said can help keep dementia at bay.
As for the minor aches that come with such workouts, they don't faze these seniors, Schuss said. "When you get up on stage, you don't feel pain or anything."
The Steppers have a role model: Ethel Bennett, 88, an actress and song stylist who founded Ms. New York Senior America in 1985. The annual state pageant, which is usually held on Long Island, includes a personal interview, gown presentation, talent act and a philosophy of life. Bennett, from Amityville, has retired to Florida but continues to put on shows in her community there and hosts a Ms. New York Senior America reunion every year.
Alonso, 90, performed internationally well into her 70s; and Tharp, 69, is a one-woman dance juggernaut, adding her imprint to shows and films. Both women founded their own dance companies.
The Seasoned Steppers don't presume to compete at that level. In the end, it's about having a good time. "Dancing keeps us young and agile," Meglio said, "and we have fun."
And there's the roar of the crowd. That, says Whitney, is what keeps her going.