Our Town Tappers have been dancing their way into the hearts of Upstate New Yorkers for almost two decades
By Meredith T. Thomas
Our Town Tappers have been dancing their way into the hearts of Upstate New Yorkers for almost two decades.
The senior tap dance group was started in 1990 by director Joyce McLaughlin and is home to 25 ladies ranging in ages 60 plus to 80 plus.
“They were taking lessons and they needed an outlet and a reason to learn the dances,” said McLaughlin, a ballet teacher from the Town of Onondaga.
That outlet began with 10 women and has since grown to two groups that perform all over Central New York.
“What we realized is that there were a lot of unhappy people in nursing homes,” McLaughlin said. “We thought this might brighten their day.”
Not only was the group benefiting those in the audience, but it was contributing something to the performers as well.
“I started the group to give the girls inspiration, to keep learning and better their technique,” McLaughlin said. “It’s also great for their minds.”
McLaughlin refers to the group’s effort as “an extension of their lives.”
“They’re like my family. They’re fun to be with and they’re all intelligent women who for the most part have all had careers,” she commented.
But in this business, there is no money to be made. The group takes donations for the shows and money they receive goes toward making of costumes, hats, canes, bats, and other accessories. The costumes are made by the women in the group, with extra help from Marge Naples and Martha Byrne.
As with most things in life, people come and go, and that’s one thing this group has learned to adjust to.
“A lot of the girls have left due to health reasons and injury and some have died,” said Byrne, one of the original group members.
Byrne, 86, started tapping in 1992 but due to an injury in 2005 had to step off the stage. She has remained behind the scenes with the group working as its master of ceremony, public relations officer, and helping with costumes.
“When I started with the group, we wore a men’s white shirt, sequin tie and a black derby hat,” Byre said. “We used that for all of our numbers. As we got into more dances I said, ‘We look good but we should look more fancy.’ I suggested we get a black pant and black top to dress up for the various numbers.”
In between routines, the ladies change accessories such as scarves, jackets, sequin vest, hats, holiday costumes and various pieces to suit the dance.
“The crowd likes a little bit of history and they love costumes that shine,” Byrne said.
As master of ceremony, Byrne is responsible for making sure the crowd is engaged in the performance.
“I introduce the girls, give their name, age and where they’re from,” Byrne said. “The audience likes to see people their own age dancing and doing things they might then feel they could do too.”
The group practices on Mondays from 1-3:30 p.m. at the senior center at Onondaga Hill.
It was there that another original member, Charlotte Tooley, 77, heard about the group.
Tooley had just moved to Onondaga Hill when she heard about the free tap class. According to Tooley, she decided to get into it and it stuck with her.
“It’s been a great group,” Tooley said. “We do nice numbers and go to nursing homes and senior places, or whoever wants to see us perform. They seem to enjoy it a lot.”
Tooley said the people are what make the group.
“I enjoy being with the girls and they enjoy having me,” she said. “I feel very grateful that I can still be with them and they’re very gracious that I still come.”
Members of the group, most of whom only had basic knowledge and skill when joining, come from Solvay, North Syracuse, Jamesville, Syracuse and Onondaga Hill to practice and perform.
“My experience was mainly that I tapped when I was young in grammar school,” Byrne said. “It’s basic steps you don’t forget.”
Recently, Our Town Tappers took part in their 18th year at the New York State Fair. “We’ve done the state fair every year since we started,” Tooley said. “It’s the biggest event we do.”
Tooley, who is retired from the nursery at Community General Hospital, said the group tries to accommodate anyone who asks to see them perform.
“When someone requests us, I go to the girls and find out how many can make it, since we need partners for most of the numbers. That way, we have enough girls to make a show,” Byrne said.
As director, McLaughlin spends her time going over the dances multiple times with the group and does all the choreography except for the solo dances that are choreographed by individual dancers.
Our Town Tappers were the recipients of the Arts & Humanities Award presented by the Central New York Parks and Recreation Society in February 2006.