The Doc Project

Move over, tap-dancing tots. This mom's storming the stage

Learning to tap dance as an adult, Nola Keeler insists that moving your body is a use-it-or-lose-it game — and one she intends to win for as long as possible.

"Kids are cute but they're a dime a dozen," says Nola Keeler as she hoofs away to Jennifer Lopez

Nola Keeler's tap dancing lessons didn't stick when she was seven — but now, she loves them. (Tanara McLean/CBC)

Age is no limit. That's the unspoken can-do mantra for a group of adult tap dancers at Emerge Dance Academy in Edmonton.

Every Thursday in an inconspicuous studio downtown, they crank the Jennifer Lopez song I Ain't Your Mama and artfully stomp out the choreography that plays up the song's take-no-guff message.

"It's very, very sassy," dancer Nola Keeler, who is a full-time journalist by day, said one Thursday. "It's about a woman who's just fed up."

At practice, Keeler is just one of 20 women waving fingers, pulling faces and high fiving each other in time to the deep base of the music. The dance is being fine tuned for a pair of competitions later in the spring, and for the year-end recital.

Nola Keeler and her fellow tap dancers rehearse to Jennifer Lopez's song "I Ain't Your Mama" at the Emerge Dance Academy in Edmonton. 0:12

As the group moves around the mirrored dance studio, it's clear they're not classically trained. But Keeler says in this class, self-consciousness isn't part of the choreography.

"No one is like, 'Could you pick up the pace a little or dance a little bit better?'" she said.

"Everybody is here to have fun, learn a little bit of tap dance and just enjoy moving their body and listening to the music."

Late bloomer

Although Keeler danced for a year as a seven-year-old girl living in Saskatchewan, it took decades before she finally took up learning to tap dance in earnest.

"I always [thought] I should get back to [dancing], but then life intervened. I had kids, and I had a job, and I was really busy," she said.

It wasn't until 2008 when her 12-year-old daughter was taking dance lessons that Keeler decided it was time to rekindle that little torch she held for what she calls "the most cheerful dance."

The group leans in. (Tanara McLean/CBC)

"At first a lot of it was panic because I didn't remember any steps," said Keeler. "At the beginning I didn't know anything. But I have progressed a lot."

Part of that learning is physical. Understanding the intricacies of moving limbs in harmonious opposition can be tricky.

We bring the house down when we compete or when we go to the recital.- Nola Keeler

"I was thinking so hard about the feet, and then [the teacher] says, "Okay, now we have to put in the arms,'" said Keeler.

"Well, when we start putting in the arms and then smiling, nobody could remember what we were supposed to do!"

Bringing the house down

Another part of her learning has been mental and emotional. It's a skill any performer learns to cope with, and Keeler says her motivation for dancing gives her a reassuring perspective.

"I'll tell you, we bring the house down when we compete or when we go to the recital," she said.

"I mean, those little kids are cute, but they're a dime a dozen. You get the adult groups out there, and people [say] it takes a lot of guts to get out there…I feel a really strong vibe from the audience."

Nola Keeler and her fellow dancers get ready for an upcoming show. (Tanara McLean/CBC)

'Use it or lose it'

Being active has always been important to Keeler. Whether it's dancing, hiking, canoeing up the North Saskatchewan River or riding her bike, she believes moving her body is key to her health and happiness.

"I'm a real proponent of 'Use it or lose it.' You could have an injury or you could get sick. Things could happen, but you've just got to keep moving as much as you can for as long as you can, and just go for it," she said.

Nola Keeler lacing up for class. (Tanara McLean/CBC)

When asked when she'll stop dancing, Keeler said she has no reservations about tap dancing into her golden years.

"It's such a cheerful dance. I feel good when I do it," she said.

"I've never felt like there's an age limit. I want to watch my grandchildren watch me dance. That would be fun. That's the goal."

To hear the full documentary, tap or click the Listen link at the top of the page.

About the Producer 
Tanara McLean

Tanara McLean has been a journalist in Alberta since 2007, working as a TV reporter, print journalist, and TV morning show host. She enjoys telling stories through her journalism, and believes fully that people's personal stories are the heart of great journalism.

Tanara is currently an associate radio producer at CBC Edmonton and an occasional producer with The Doc Project.

This piece was edited by Acey Rowe.


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