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Gotta dance: Tapping's a kick for senior dance troupe

Helen Anders
From left, Sharon Rigsby, Flo Weiershausen, Marcia Bailey, Umpi Bechtol and Gina Wooten practice at Shirley McPhail Dance Studio. Some of the members of the seniors tap dance troupe had roles in Rickard Linklater's film 'Bernie.'

Every Thursday morning, 10 black-clad women in their 60s, 70s and 80s can be found in a North Austin dance studio, diligently practicing their tap-dancing with pageant-worthy smiles in full makeup, no less.

"We used to come in shorts and old T-shirts and no makeup," says Betty Andrews, who learned to dance as a child and was a drum majorette at Austin High School. "Then we started going to Luby's afterward for lunch, and you don't want to go in there all scraggly."

There's nothing remotely scraggly about Class Act, the senior dance troupe that performs at women's club meetings, churches and fundraisers around Central Texas and this year took a star turn in the Richard Linklater movie, "Bernie," starring Shirley MacLaine, Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey. Six of the Class Act troupers played the roles of contestants in the Mrs. Senior Carthage Contest in scenes shot at Hyatt Regency Lost Pines in Bastrop.

"Jack Black was very nice, and so was Shirley MacLaine. She stopped and talked to us," says Nita Bouldin, the former belly dancer who's head of the group. "Matthew wasn't there."

With props such as streamer-laced tambourines and top hats, the women rehearse every Thursday, tapping away to "Anything Goes," "Route 66" and "Austin Town" — a song by troupe member Marcia Bailey's husband, Bob — at Shirley McPhail School of Dance. Studio owner Edwina Worley choreographs their routines "and then I change them for performances depending on where we are and who's there to dance," says Bouldin, whose husband's family is, indeed, the Bouldins for whom the creek is named.

The women are currently rehearsing "Hello, Dolly," which they will perform with blue feathered headpieces that troupe member Jeanetta Kloppe is making.

"All of you owe me $3," says Kloppe, who with Bouldin designs the group's many costumes, from cowgirl outfits to flapper dresses.

"We usually have two or three costume changes in each show," Bouldin says. "We either make our own costumes or have them made. They're all crammed into an upstairs room in my house." The group’s next performances will be Thursday at Dougherty Arts Center and Aug. 7 at Longhorn Village retirement center.

Most in the troupe, which formed in 2000, learned to tap as adults. But Sharon Rigsby has been tapping since she was 2 and hasn't let rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis stop her. Debbie Shaw, a retired teacher, says she took a few years of dance as a child before the Baptist Church leaned on her parents to get her to stop and she wound up in piano lessons instead. She now gets the last laugh as she taps and struts to "Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham."

Elizabeth "Umpy" Bechtol — who grew up in Hawaii and regrets never learning to hula — enjoys the exercise and the camaraderie of Class Act. Bechtol is a former Miss Texas Tech and widow of College Football Hall of Famer Hub Bechtol.

Flo Weiershausen, whose smile just might be the group's biggest, says she gets calls all the time from friends and family who recognize her in "Bernie."

"They cut our dance act out of the movie," Bouldin says, "but that's OK. They did send me a clip of it. Everybody got paid, and everybody gave it to the studio for rent." And everybody enjoys photos they took with Black and others involved in the production.

"That guy," Shaw says, pointing to an unidentified man in one photo, "acted like a Hollywood agent. He got out of a black limousine. He took all our names like he was going to make us stars. We haven't heard from him since."

Contact Helen Anders at 912-2590

NOTE: This story has been updated online to correct the date of the group's Dougherty Arts Center performance.