Thirty-one shuffles. That is my homework. No, I am not a card player rearranging the deck. No, I am not listening to music in random order on my iPod. And I am not shuffling off to Buffalo even once.
Along with other seniors, I am a beginning student in a Golden Opportunities tap-dance class. Norma, a former Mrs. Missouri, is our chic, experienced teacher.
She has just given us an assignment: shuffle (brush front and back) 31 times – alternating sets of brushes from front to side with the right foot – and then step before repeating these brushes with the left foot and a final step.
Near the end of class, we practice this shuffling, and Norma laughs and stops us when Mary counts much too fast, saying, "No, you can't get away with that!"
Most of us have taken other sessions of beginning classes with this teacher, and she is very patient as we slowly progress, starting with basic steps (which she takes apart so that we understand and learn how to do them correctly) and then combining them.
Even the klutziest dancers in our group don't feel intimidated and are advancing. We are learning better balance. We are learning when to bend our knees and go up and down on the balls of our feet. And we are having fun.
The more advanced students in classes following ours convince us of our promising tap-dancing future in several years if we continue. After all, they were once beginners, too.
During class, we repeat each dance step – but not only with our feet. Norma stresses the importance of saying the words as we do each part of the step. One day, I hope a Maxi Ford and a waltz clog will be just as natural as a grapevine (step cross step hop) is now in my aerobics classes, which I have taken for nine years. But I know that will take awhile.
Of course, I know I never will be. Nonetheless, as I do the military step (shuffle hop down step, step), I have in my mind's eye the Rockettes' toy-soldier routine my granddaughter and I saw several years ago. In my imagination, I pretend I am in line wearing the patriotic costume, holding a long rifle, and rotating around the stage in perfect time.
As I learn each new step, I more and more appreciate the skill of professional hoofers. I dream about Tommy Tune and Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. I envision Eleanor Powell and Ginger Rogers. To me, their unsurpassed performances seem timeless.
Recently, Norma explained that in making the soundtrack of some Hollywood movies, dancers wearing serviceable tap shoes performed the routine with clear, distinct tapping sounds. Later, cameramen filmed the couples dancing with the female stars wearing fancier high-heeled tap shoes. Although they were glamorous for the silver screen, it was more difficult to tap wearing them.
Although the sound of our class memebers' tapping is not always perfectly synchronized, we are attuned to the other students and respond to their lack of tapping expertise with kindness and encouragement, maybe a suggestion, or arms locked to help with balance.
The age of those in class spans about three decades. One very petite woman is in her 80s, and during this session, her tall daughter, who is in her 60s, joined us. Some of the women in the class tapped in childhood; most of us did not.
More than 50 years ago, I took ballet lessons and can still remember first through fifth positions with my feet and arms as well as how to do attitudes and arabesques. Who knows what tap steps I'll remember decades from now?
Sometimes, after we think we have mastered a certain step, Norma selects music with a faster tempo. On such occasions, although I am a musician and can hear the beat to any song, my feet are not the only ones in class that do not tap fast enough to be in time.
So, under Norma's direction, we go over the step again more slowly – with our feet and our voices – before tapping to a song with a more moderate tempo.
I am taking this week's 31-shuffle assignment seriously. Many other steps – including the triple-time step (shuffle hop, shuffle step, brush ball change) and the buffalo (leap shuffle change) – include shuffles, so I want them to become more automatic.
After all, one day I may be onstage – even if it is only at the tap dancing competition of the local Senior Olympics.
And what song has Norma chosen for our routine? "Shuffle Off to Buffalo." I'm on my way!