ALBANY, CALIFORNIA - Tap dance, a young student says with a giggle, is "a bit louder than ballet."
Wearing leotards and pale pink tights, she and three other girls skip across the floor at a community center in Albany, California. Their shiny black tap shoes make them sound like a small herd of ponies clattering across cobblestones. The sound comes from metal "taps" on their heels and toes, taps that are attached to a small sounding board that makes the sounds crisp and bright.
After just a few beginner lessons, these girls can make an explosion of merry syncopated noise doing classic tap moves such as the step-ball-change. By learning these steps, they're part of a uniquely American art form that dates back to the 1800s, when a melting pot of ethnic percussive dances blended African tribal dances with English clog dancing, with a bit of Scottish hornpipes and jigs.
Tap's improvised inventions fit especially well with the growing popularity of American jazz. African-American dancers such as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson used their skills at tap as a stairway to stardom in the 1930s.
High-stepping tap was the hallmark of dozens of movies, from "Singin' in the Rain" to the animated "Happy Feet," about dancing penguins.
While tap might be a passing fancy for many children, 13-year-old Chance Tom is serious about tap.
Wearing shorts and a tank top, he races across the dance floor at the Albany Community Center, his feet a blur, sounding like a thundering racehorse. He started tap lessons in California nearly a decade ago. Now, he trains overseas at London's Royal Academy of Dance, one of the largest and most prestigious dance organizations in the world.
Chance said he loves tap because it's a very rhythmic, adding matter-of-factly, "It definitely involves a lot of dexterity of the feet."
He predicts that whether he chooses a career in music or dance, he'll find a place for tap.
Never too old to tap
Tap is not a passing fancy for the senior citizens who attend weekly dance classes at the Rossmoor Senior Community Center in California.
In today's session, more than a dozen happy hoofers prove they still have the moves. One of them, Burton Rice, proudly announces, "I'm two days away from 90."
Rice learned to tap as a boy in Kansas. He got good enough that his hometown paid him to dance on stage between movie shows. Today, he still taps, doing hops and skips and backward shuffles that many people might consider impossible for someone 30 years younger.
Rice said he keeps tap dancing because he likes the music.
"If you're going to exercise, It beats walking," he said with a shrug and a laugh before doing another one-two-shuffle.
Dancers in this class are so fit and alert and have such good balance that their doctors, they say, tell them to never give up tap.
That's true for 85-year-old Joan Juengert, who learned tap as a girl. After finishing a routine where all the dancers did tap pirouettes and leaps, Juengert took a break and smiled.
"All my worries fade away when I'm in tap class," she explained.
Next to her family, Juengert called tap the most wonderful thing in her life. She's done all kinds of dance, ranging from ballet to modern. She taught modern dance for 20 years.
Yet, "I always keep the tap in there because I love it so much," she said. "It's good exercise. It keeps your mind really alert. You're learning new steps, new routines all the time."
Research indicates that learning to dance helps not only with fitness, but with skills such as math. Most of all, Juengert said, it's fun - especially tap. She believes all children should learn some form of dance, and preferably at an early age. She fondly mentioned her 3-month-old granddaughter.
"I can't wait to get tap shoes on her!"
One day soon, Juengert hopes her granddaughter will join other young girls wearing pale pink leotards to their first tap dance lessons, to keep this happy, noisy form of dance alive and kicking.