For two decades, The Billie Mahoney Dance Troupe has riffed, shuffled and flapped to jazzy, syncopated rhythms year round.
On a recent Wednesday night at the Bolender Center, dancer and choreographer Billie Mahoney runs through a new routine with her tap dance troupe. At 88, she’s still teaching. Occasionally, she leans on a nearby table to help keep her balance.
“Right now we’re working on ‘The Savoy,’ Benny Goodman’s ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy,’" explains Mahoney. “I’m a jazz enthusiast and jazz music is my music. I can’t stand rock music, so the music we use for our dancers is from the '30s and '40s, the swing era.”
The half-dozen dancers in the troupe are all over the age of 50. Karen Seaton has danced with Mahoney for 15 years, and says it’s a joyful tonic.
“You cannot be sad and be tapping. Definitely, tapping makes you happy. You can’t help but smile and enjoy yourself,” Seaton says. “It doesn’t seem like it looks hard, but you’re sweating. And to make it look easy is very difficult, you know. You want to make it look smooth and easy and get all the sounds in and all the rests and pauses."
Getting the rhythm right, she says, "is a lot of work and a lot of mental communication between your brain and your feet."
Many of Mahoney’s dancers took lessons when they were young, before work and family interrupted.
Bunny Douglas says she strapped on an old pair of tap shoes for her first class with Mahoney in 1997.
“I had my tap shoes from when I was a teenager, so I dug those things out and yes I could still put my foot in them,” Douglas says. “So I brought them to the class. I put my shoes on and I started dancing and screws were flying every which way out of those taps because those shoes were so old. I liked it so much I went out that day and I bought some tap shoes.”
The troupe made a big impression on dancer Nancy Murdock.
“Not that many people tap dance like these ladies do,” Murdock says. “I’ll never forget the first time I saw one of their rehearsals and I went, 'Whoa, these ladies can dance.'”
Mahoney is relentless in her drive for perfection. When a step lands wrong, she points it out.
“Just tickle the floor,” she calls to the dancers rehearsing. “Tickle, tickle, tickle.”
“What I say is 'lift the sound out of the floor,'” Mahoney says. “Don’t pound it into the floor. So much of the tap dance these days, the youngsters are pounding it into the floor. I want to lift the sound out of the floor. And so you get that click rather than boom.”
Mahoney spent many years in the world of New York City dance and likes to share those stories.
“This is from my act,” says Mahoney demonstrating a step. “I did it in high heels.”
Karen Seaton says she soaks it all in.
“She is amazing,” Seaton says. “She’s just a walking history lesson — all the people that she’s met or worked with and the places she’s performed. She’ll tell a story about, ‘Uh when I was dancing with Gene Kelly, he had this big ring on his finger. It squeezed my hand.' And 'Bob Fosse, I swore I’d never work with him again.' I feel honored and lucky to be around someone that’s been everywhere.”
Donna Patty spent two decades with the troupe. Now she splits her time between Florida and Kansas City and dances with Mahoney whenever she can.
“Tap dancing to your favorite music is the best exercise,” Patty says with a laugh. “This is my eightieth year. I haven’t had my birthday yet but I keep telling my peers well, let’s just keep moving.”
Mahoney says she creates dynamic choreography to push her dancers mentally and physically.
“You can walk on a treadmill and get the same physical exercise, but stimulating the brain is very important,” Mahoney says. “And so I want the dancers to have a slight challenge so that they’re thinking rather than just doing movement.”
But remembering dance sequences is not as easy as it once was. Just ask Donna Patty.
“I can usually pick them up quickly but then by the time I’m in the car driving home from a class, I might not remember the step,” Patty says. “I have to work at thinking about the steps.”
The mental and physical challenges of dancing over the age of 50 don't always have to do with mastering the steps.
“People have lost loved ones,” Seaton notes. “People have had surgeries and another lady had cancer. I had cancer in a bone. I was on crutches for two months. That recovery took quite a long time. And just, you know, our aging parents and our kids.”
The bond that friendship brings helps them through the rough spots.
“It’s another kind of support group that’s different from your work support group or friends,” says Murdock. “And it comes out of sharing the love for the art.”
Mahoney says she has no plans to stop anytime soon.
"You gotta keep dancing forever. You know, you dance on. You don’t don’t stop," she says with a laugh. "I just feel privileged that I’m able to still do it. So we just keep going.”
The Billie Mahoney Dance Troupe performs as part of local celebrations of National Tap Dance Day on Saturday, May 21, 2016, at 7 p.m. at the Uptown Arts Bar, 3611 Broadway, Kansas City, Missouri.
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.