Adult tap dancers work out from head to toes

Lessons are good exercise for an agile mind and body


At a time when many people are seeking ways to improve their physical fitness, Mary Carter of Severna Park is living proof that the fountain of youth might be as close as the nearest dance studio.

Luncheons and committee meetings might be the order of the day for some women of a certain age, but not for Carter, 75, the longtime owner of the Carter School of Dance.

She still choreographs all the routines for her 500 students, personally teaches her advanced tap dancers and routinely shows up at all of the other classes to oversee the quality of work of her 11 instructors and two accompanists.

Since 1961, when she and her husband, Walter, moved to Severna Park, Carter has built a dancing dynasty while raising 10 children.

Hundreds of women with grown children of their own (and more than a few men) took their first lesson from Carter, who for nearly a dozen years choreographed aerobic routines nationwide for the YWCA.

Following Carter's example, 15 women and one young man attend her popular "Tap Dancing for Adults" class Monday night at the YWCA in Arnold. Old enough to be the younger students' grandmothers, the would-be hoofers are hardly past their prime - in fact they are some of Carter's most enthusiastic students. The first-time tappers attend the beginners class at 7 p.m.; the experienced dancers attend class an hour later.

Student Grace Watkins, 65, said, "I haven't been in this shape since I was 18 years old." She laughed about managing to step on her own feet in the process.

"By the time we leave there, I'm soaked," said Watkins, who has two grown sons. "It's very intense."

This is her first time in Carter's class, but she hopes not her last.

"I hope to be good enough to advance to the experienced class," said Watkins, who has had a mixed bag of careers that includes software support technician, real estate agent and jewelry merchant through a dot-com company.

"I am normally very coordinated," said Donna Milliman, 50, an adult tap student who has never taken a dance class before. "I'm amazed at how much work it is, to balance and shift weight from one foot to another, on the ball of your feet. I find myself tipping over and stumbling."

Still, Milliman said, she would "highly suggest the class to anybody because it's a lot of fun and mind-stimulating."

When she's not dancing, Milliman runs her own business, Annapolis Custom Yacht Canvas, from her home in Eastport. She comes into work Tuesday mornings, she said, and shows her employees her new steps. "When everyone leaves," she said, "I put on my tap shoes and practice.

"If anyone has done Jazzercise or line dancing," Milliman said, "they could pick these steps up very easily. You can take those steps and condense them down into your shoes."

"I hope everyone is getting as much enjoyment as I am," said Milliman. "[Our teacher] makes it look so easy."

Larraine Clark, a business analyst at Northrop Grumman Corp., finds time to teach both adult tap classes and serve on the YWCA board. The Pennsylvania native, whose husband, John, is a software engineering manager at Northrop Grumman, sees tap-dancing as not only fun, but an art form.

"I think everybody's there to have fun," said the dance instructor who becomes a student when she takes ballet lessons from Barbara Owen at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. "There is a wonderful coordination of movement to music [in tap]. Students get to make noise, using all parts of their body, ankles, feet, arms and head."

Another adult tap student, Carol Delawder, 61, who grew up in Locust Point in Baltimore, took tap-dancing lessons when she was young. Although she has danced all her life, she said, "This is something new."

"This truly is a good exercise," said the mother of two sons and two grandchildren. "You know you've worked an hour - all the warm-ups, then a routine that combines it, makes us think we're dancing."

"It's exercise and fun," said Delawder. "We have laughed and laughed at the mistakes we make. When I look at the instructor and how she flows, you want to flow. The brain says you can, but the body says no.

"I'd like to keep on doing things to keep as active as I can," she said.

Carter introduced local students to gymnastics and aerobics in the 1970s, and over the years has taught tap, ballet, jazz, modern, hip-hop (a class she called "Disco Teens"). She also taught ballroom dancing in the public schools.

Carter, who formed a partnership with the county YWCA 41 years ago, conducts classes at the YWCA in Arnold, the Community Center in Severna Park, at studios in Odenton and Pasadena, and at assorted churches. "Wherever we can find a place to dance," she said.

Having taken her first dance lesson at age 4, Carter was 11 when a dance instructor in her hometown of Brewster, Maine, asked her to replace a teacher who was marrying a World War II soldier and moving away. She took the job and continued to teach through high school, traveling each summer to New York City to study at the renowned Stanley Dance Center.

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