Our Neighbor

Yonkers's 85-year-old tap dancer



Still Kicking at 85

 

One Woman’s Prescription for keeping happy and healthy

 

By Marisa LaScala

 

A dapper young man sits at a piano and strikes up a few major chords. Twelve women in coal-black top hats and sparkly sequin leotards rush to their places in four army-straight lines. As a familiar tune from A Chorus Line wafts across the dance studio, tap instructor and choreographer Selma Rothstein of Yonkers begins to count: “And-a-one, and-a-two…” All at once, the dancers, dubbed the Tappettes, start clicking their heels, kicking their legs, tipping their hats, and weaving in and out in intricate formations.

Rothstein, wearing a contagious grin, calls out instructions from her perch on the director’s chair. “A bit more to the left, Mary!” she orders. “There’s your audience, girls—smile for them!” And as she does, her legs follow along, gracefully, accurately. She doesn’t miss a step.

This is no ordinary dance class. Rothstein is 85 years old. “A great-grandmother of four,” she announces proudly. Her students range in age from a youthful 47 to a spry 85. Rothstein started the troupe—which includes professional entertainers, former USO dancers, and casual tappers—more than 30 years ago. Halfway through their routine, I realize that some of these women have been dancing together for longer than I’ve been alive.

As Rothstein will be the first to tell you, this class isn’t just about dancing; it’s about living. “The reason people my age get old is because they get lonely,” she says, noting that she lost her husband nine years ago. “I’ve heard that loneliness is the number-one killer in America and I believe it. What keeps me young is being involved with these people.”

By observing just a few brief interactions, it becomes obvious her students, who dance for two hours every week at the YWCA in White Plains, adore her. Okay, to be honest, I didn’t glean this information just from watching—all of her students were anxious to rave about her without any solicitation from me whatsoever.

From retired school psychologist Ina Winick of Hastings-on-Hudson: “Selma’s an inspiration to us all. She’s just so full of life.”

From Valhalla resident Fay Mahony: “Selma is the most wonderful person. She just exudes happiness and a positive attitude.”

From Judy Terracciano, a Hawthorne resident with 26 years of tap under her belt: “We treat this class like therapy. Whenever I’m feeling down, Selma comes to me and says, ‘Forget about it and dance.’” 

Rothstein’s love of dance began when, as a three-year-old, she was told by doctors to take lessons to repair “weak muscles”; by age 15, she and a friend had opened their own teaching studio in Yonkers, pumping all the money they earned into more dance classes in the city. Eventually, Rothstein turned pro and danced in clubs in the city and in the Catskills.

Today, she exercises, stretches, and dances for an hour each day. In addition, she teaches two 120-minute classes each week: the tap class and a “Fit for Life” class that combines stretching, yoga, ballet, and modern dance. What once was a prescription for weak muscles has turned into Rothstein’s personal prescription for a long, healthy life.

Apparently, it works. Recently she underwent minor surgery, but, she assures, “I was teaching again the next week. I didn’t skip a single class.”

 

 

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