Twice a week, the Bellingham Senior Activity Center’s auditorium turns into a real-life scene from “Cocoon” — the ’80s sci-fi ode to eternal youth — when the Senior Steppers, a group of tap-dancing kids at heart, line up in rows and practice for an hour and a half.
The class is led by 94-year-old Elmerine Strickland, who grew up a dancer, graduated from Bellingham High School and attended Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts for ballet. However, a ski accident on Mount Baker as a young adult left her with a broken leg and a shattered dream. Instead of moving to New York, Strickland partnered with a Cornish teacher to open a dance studio in Bellingham where she taught ballet.
In 1950, she married and moved to Montana, where she and her husband started a family. Strickland continued teaching dance at schools in Columbia Falls and Whitefish. Many moves later — all due to her husband’s job — they wound up back in Bellingham in 1992. Six years later, she joined the Senior Steppers, and 20 years ago, she became the instructor.
Elmerine Strickland puts on her tap shoes before the class. Though she is a ballerina at heart, she said she enjoys “making noise like a kid” while tap dancing. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
Before the pandemic, the group was thriving. More than two dozen members regularly performed for retirement living and nursing homes in feathers, sequins and top hats. Now, the group is made up of a few seasoned tappers and many beginners, who are trying to get up to speed by practicing to videos at home so the Senior Steppers can start live performances again, hopefully for a broader audience.
Luckily, they’re in good hands. Strickland, who is not dancing as much anymore because she fell this year, still comes to every class, while her successors — mainly a man named George Gleason — lead the group.
“She’s the brain,” Gleason said.
In the first half of class, Gleason stands in the front row demonstrating the steps, while Strickland stands off to the side holding an old iPod Touch, selecting the songs that accompany each number. At times, she can’t help but gently tap along.
Strickland is an incredible dancer, teacher and choreographer, said Lora Eckert, who danced with the Senior Steppers for 15 years.
“She’s an athlete and she dances with grace and accuracy. She can do those steps and show you exactly how to do them,” Eckert said. “She has a really good eye. She can catch what people need to improve on. I always like it when she tells me to slow down because I feel like she’s paying attention to me.”
During the second half of class, the dancers practice what they’ve learned by dancing numbers that include the steps they worked on.
“[Strickland] uses salt and pepper shakers at home to sort things out and get the timing,” 76-year-old Karen Hollingsworth said. “She moves us around and then decides if that’s what she wants in the dance.”
Elmerine Strickland flips through a binder of tap dance routines she choreographed. "She can do those steps and show you exactly how to do them,” said Lora Eckert, who danced with the Senior Steppers for 15 years. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
Strickland has a binder full of dance routines that she brings with her to class. “I’ve been dancing so long I’m not making anything new up,” said Strickland, who is a ballerina at heart but enjoys “making noise like a kid” while tap dancing.
In a class in late September, the group decided to do “Singin’ in the Rain,” which starts with the dancers shaking invisible rain off their bodies.
It also requires them to do cramp rolls, a difficult move with four distinct steps.
The Senior Steppers rehearse "Singin' in the Rain" in the senior center's auditorium. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
“Toe, toe, heel, heel,” Gleason said, walking the steppers through it. The purpose of the move is to be able to hear all four steps individually — but when put together quickly, it sounds like a drum roll.
Strickland started the musical classic and the group tapped through it as she watched their toes and heels closely. When it was over, she was not impressed.
“She couldn’t hear the cramp rolls,” Michelle Nelson, 65, shouted after talking with Strickland, who sauntered over to the center of the group to demonstrate the step.
Her tiny feet gently tapped: toe, toe, heel, heel. It was quiet, but it was perfect — and everyone knew it. She made them start the number again.
“She taught us everything. That’s why she’s so strict on these steps,” said Hollingsworth, who has been with the Senior Steppers for six years. “She doesn’t let us get away with anything.”
The beginners watched the veterans, copying their steps and turning when they turned. Sydney Kohlmeier, 79, who joined the Senior Steppers earlier this year, said Strickland recently told her, “Sydney, you’re faking it.”
“I said, ‘Yeah, I am.’ It was the only way to get through the dance!” Kohlmeier said, laughing.
Elmerine Strickland, right, gives feedback to dancers about their steps and shuffles with George Gleason, who has helped lead the group since Strickland fell earlier this year. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
Many students said Strickland’s choreography is smart because her steps coincide with the music and lyrics, which helps the dancers remember what step to do. This is apparent in the next number: “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
For each “one,” “two” and “three” strikes, the steppers swing invisible bats in between taps.
“Everybody loves ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ when we perform it. You almost can’t hear the music because the entire audience takes over and sings,” Nelson said, reminiscing on the live recitals. At 65, she’s the “baby” of the group — although some of the older folks have a whole lot more energy, she said.
“Having a hard time keeping up with us old folks, huh?” Strickland asked Nelson after her first day over a decade ago.
The Senior Steppers are hoping they’ll have enough members by the start of baseball season next year to start performing again in front of crowds.
Until then, they'll keep practicing — and cheating nature — with or without a swimming pool full of alien cocoons keeping them young.