Hilary Bergen was 70 years old and in rehabilitation after suffering a stroke when she decided to take up tap dancing.
'I had just recovered from a major stroke, where I couldn't speak or walk or anything, but I had physio and I thought tap dancing would be good for me.'
That was eight years ago and, despite suffering a second stroke and a heart attack, Hilary is still a regular at Miss Caroline’s School of Tap Dancing.
‘At first, I couldn't remember all the steps and it was quite difficult, but the more I did, the better I got. But when I say I got better, I'm not good because I've had two strokes and one leg doesn't work as well as the other and I'm deaf and I can't hear the music and I can't hear (the teacher’s) instructions.
‘But Caroline doesn't mind and it's very beneficial for me because, being deaf, I don't socialise very easily, but this is a way I can socialise without being able to hear.’
Caroline Healy began teaching senior specific classes at her tap-dancing school after it became clear there was a demand from that demographic for lower impact moves. She says tap is a dance form that is perfect for seniors.
‘You can do it to quite an old age. There's a lot of great hoofers who were still tapping in their nineties. So, the later you start, the less great you’re going to be because it's a skill, it’s not as easy as it looks, but you can still do it.’
The benefits of tap dancing for older people in terms of improvements in balance, ankle mobility and strength are enormous, Caroline says.
‘And, you have to concentrate quite hard to build these little sequence patterns and learn the steps, which is the equivalent of doing a hard brain puzzle with physical exertion and some balance, memory and pattern recognition thrown in.’
There is also the joy of dancing.
‘Any dancing makes you happy — everyone walks out feeling better. You don't notice that you've spent an hour exercising because you're just having fun. You're concentrating so hard on what you're doing, that you let go of what you've walked in the door with. But, on top of that, tap dancing is a primal kind of thing with your foot hitting the ground in rhythm. I think it’s just something that makes you very happy when you do it.’
The classes are not competitive, and mistakes are frequent and amusing.
‘Nothing happens if you get it wrong, you just got to try again and you get it, and I think that's a very healthy environment to be in,’ Caroline says.
‘The biggest smiles I get on people's faces is when they've made a mistake.’
Hilary is happy to admit she smiles frequently during her Bette Midler Seniors tap class. ‘It's about the exercise and trying to do it, but also the friendships and having a lovely time.’
Hilary also looks forward to the performances. ‘We get all dressed up in our costumes and it's really fun.
‘All my children and the grandchildren come, and my lovely grandchildren say, “You are wonderful nanny”. It's not true, but I don't mind,’ she laughs.Bette Midler dance group, Hilary at far right.
Reviewed 18 May 2023