Happy Feat

If ever a record was made to be broken, it seems, it's the one for long-distance tap dancing. A shuffle through 16 years of agony, ecstasy and snappy choreography

August 03, 1999|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

The headline -- albeit in tiny type, buried inside the newspaper -- said it all:

"Virginia tap dancer seeks Guinness record spot."

Finally, it had arrived. The story we'd been waiting for. The dramatic, uplifting, all-American story of the quest for a record. The successor to last summer's riveting McGwire-Sosa saga.

A Charlottesville-area woman tap-danced for almost nine hours Saturday, covering 20 miles and apparently earning herself a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Angell Husted, a 51-year-old fitness instructor, danced across the finish line at 5: 15 p.m. yesterday, breaking the record. ... She finished her 348 laps after miles of heel-toe and toe-heel movements sprinkled in with skips and shuffles.

OK. So it's not the single-season home run record. But it's a record story all the same, complete with heart-stopping moments, larger-than-life characters and historic feats of strength and endurance. More important, it is the story of the people who paved the way -- the Babe Ruths and Roger Marises of long-distance tap. People such as David Meenan of Red Bank, N.J., who, on June 30, 1996, tapped 23.2 miles* in the rain (not singing) to raise money for a friend with leukemia. And

Beth Obermeyer, who established her legend back in July 1983 by tapping 4.1 miles in 90-degree heat -- while dressed as a giant apple. And Laurie Churchwell, who in 1996 tapped 17.9 miles over icy sidewalks on the campus of Howard College in Big Spring, Texas.

"I didn't do it to be immortal, or to hold the record forever," a humble Churchwell says. "I did it for my children and my dance students, to show them that whatever you set your mind to, you can do it."

Who are these legends? What drove them to these awesome distances? In the winter of 1997, when Angell Husted first dreamed of tapping farther than any woman in the world had tapped before, she had no time for such questions. There was money to be raised, music to be selected, a costume to be made, a venue to find.

There was also this minor issue.

She didn't know how to tap dance.

But that's getting ahead of things. First, some history.

As recently as the early 1980s, the Guinness Book of World Records made no mention of long-distance tap dancing. But in 1983, a Minnesota tap teacher and publicist named Beth Obermeyer took steps, shuffle and otherwise, to bring distance tap into the modern era.

That summer, Obermeyer was preparing to lead a group of tap students through the streets of Minneapolis as part of an annual city parade. She did not know of the history-making potential of her "Minneapple Tappers" until she chanced upon this little-known fact: The record for long-distance tap dancing was then 3 miles, set in San Francisco the year before.

To anyone else, perhaps, a useless statistic. Not to Beth Obermeyer. She quickly surmised that if her tappers began their routine in the parade staging area and continued all the way to the buses, they could add a full mile to the route and the record would be theirs.

And so, in 1985, the Guinness book duly noted that "the longest distance tap danced non-stop is 4.1 miles by a group of 22, led by Beth Obermeyer and her daughter Kristin, 12 ... in 90 degree heat and 70 percent humidity."

Sadly, this historic entry neglected the fact that both Obermeyers were wearing giant apples made of foam board at the time. But more important, Guinness had finally acknowledged the sport in print.

And the former record holder? Her name might not have been in the Guinness book, but the world hadn't heard the last of her.

Record inspiration

In 1986, the world of long-distance tap witnessed another exciting development. Elizabeth Ursic and Deebie Symmes, friends working toward MBA degrees at the Wharton School, were spotted by producers at a New York City club and invited to appear in the Stevie Wonder video "Part-Time Lover."

For reasons too complex to explain here (but perfect for an 11-part tap documentary; Ken Burns, are you listening?) their video experience inspired the women to try to break a Guinness record.

But which one? The women soon realized that they were neither odd nor patient enough to compete in most Guinness categories. Longest sneezing fit? Slimmest waist? Most hot dogs eaten in a minute?

They had nearly given up hope when they came across Obermeyer's record. It was destiny: Both women were runners with tap dancing experience. And so, on May 4, 1986, the pair tapped 6 miles of Philadelphia's 10-mile Broad Street Run.

"Growing up, I didn't really consider myself an athlete," Ursic says now. "So to participate in breaking a record that continues is exciting."

In the wake of their accomplishment, it was clear the lure of long-distance tap dancing was growing stronger. Because amazingly enough, the two friends weren't the only people to tap 6 miles that year. On Aug. 16, a woman not only tapped 6 miles, but did so with a line of 17 other dancers tapping behind her.

Her name was Rosie Radiator.

She lived in San Francisco.

Documented feat

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