MORGANTOWN — Never dance for money. Give back to the community. Always smile. Those lessons still ring in the minds of Virginia Chittom’s former dance students. Her dance studio in Morgantown instilled a love of dance in a generation of children.
Now, over 50 years later, her former students know she’d be proud to see them still dancing to give back to the community she loved as the senior tap-dancing group known as The MoTown Strutters.
Debbie Libertore West said she began dancing at Virginia Chittom’s school of dance at 3. After dancing her way through childhood and then becoming a dance teacher, she inspired many other pupils to love the art, but she never lost the joy of simply tap dancing with friends.
“Years ago, a couple of us [Virginia’s former students] got together and said we needed to tap,” she said. “So, we looked for a place to tap. We couldn’t find a place, so we ended up at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on Patteson Drive. I’m a former member of the Service League, and at the time, there was a lady who was a member of that church. She said we could dance downstairs.
“Mind you, there were no mirrors. The floor was not really conducive to tap, but we started there. … But, then, I’d see people I’d know and ask if they wanted to come tap with us.”
West said the group began to grow as more ladies joined the bi-weekly tap sessions, eventually held once a week at Morgantown Dance Studio, where West teaches, and once a week at Senior Mons.
“People I would see would come and tap with us,” she said. “We can take new members, but the only thing is they have to know how to tap.”
West said the group of performance-loving senior ladies knew their passion for dance could give back to the community, as Virginia had once taught them.
“We all have a God-given talent. So, why keep it here or at Senior Mons when we can go out and brighten someone’s day?”
West said the group performs for nursing homes, birthday parties, veterans’ events, the Knights of Columbus and the West Virginia Public Theater Christmas shows. The ladies will typically perform three to four numbers, and they buy all of their own costumes — a different costume for each song.
“Our music is the kind of songs people know,” she said. “We don’t really do a lot of popular songs because our audience is mostly older.
“Our nickname is the Strutter Sisters. There’s actually 13 of us. One lady hurt her foot really badly, and she’s not allowed to dance with us. The doctor said no. So, now she has become our music maestro and costume mistress.”
Then, West said, there’s the queen of the tap dancing seniors — Dorothy Moore.
“Miss Dorothy is 90 years old,” she said. “She’s our queen. She can no longer tap with us, but she’s our announcer when we perform, and she tells jokes in between. She’s absolutely amazing.
“She performs one dance called ‘Ain’t She Sweet.’ We wear Charleston dresses, and we back up, and she comes out and does her own little thing. And when we do our military dances, we do all five branches of the military, so she’ll hold up the flags for each branch of the military; and at the end we dance to ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ and she holds up the United States flag.”
Carrie Fox, a former student of Virginia’s and former Navy surgical nurse, said the veteran performances have a special place in her heart.
“I’m the veteran of the group,” she said. “I get choked up when I see all the vets. We have two military dances, and it does something to me when we get the vets.”
Fox said she also acts as a nurse to the tap dancing family, affectionately called Nurse Ratchet. Fox said for some of the ladies involved, dance has served as a way to keep healthy.
Karen Zuccari said she had both knees replaced during her time with the group.
“But, my surgeon — I said, ‘Should I give up tap dancing? Just tell me and I’ll give it up.’ He told me everyone needs something, and if tap dancing was my thing, I needed to stay with it, so I did.”
West said research has shown tap is good for seniors’ brains because it involves thinking about feet position as well as body movement.
For Andrea Horton, tap was a recapturing of a passion she put aside while her children were growing up.
“Honestly, raising kids and working many years, I didn’t have time for hobbies, but I’d see a show where someone was tap dancing, and I’d think, I just really want to tap again, but I hadn’t tap danced since I was 11. It’s a renewal of a spirit of dance.”
Susan Petsko said she never got to take lessons with Virginia, and she always wanted to tap dance again like she had as a young girl.
“When I grew up, my dad was a coal miner, so when the mines went on strike, you didn’t have any money,” she said. “Money had to go for food and other stuff, and when you are in a family of four kids, you just couldn’t do it. So, I did it for two or three years, and that was it.
“But, I always loved it, so when Debbie said you have to come join, and I knew some of the [other ladies] — I’ve loved it ever since.”
Cynthia Ulrich said the group is special because their love of tap dancing and giving back to the community are able to work together.
“We all have the same passion for tap dancing,” she said. “But, even more than that, when we go out into the community, and we put our talent out there in front of them, and we see faces light up, and smiles from ear to ear — it gives me goosebumps to think about, and it’s all because of Debbie.”
West said the passion goes back further to Virginia’s lessons for her students — lessons she still thinks about today as she dances.
“I don’t know what I could say about Virginia without crying,” she said. “Dance is dance, and it’s always in you. It doesn’t leave whether you do something with it in life. She always said if you want to be a professional dancer, I’m OK with that, but you better get a good education. It was always about getting a good education because not everyone was going to make it.
“She rarely ever said don’t follow your dreams. She may have, but I never heard it. It was always follow your dreams, but have a back-up plan.”
For Horton, Virginia’s legacy is evident every time she goes up on stage without feeling nervous.
“You’d get up on the Met stage for the recital, and you learned the dance,” she said. “You didn’t have an adult you were watching. You knew the dance, and she taught you to smile. … It carries through. You think you are going to be nervous to perform, and it comes back.
“It’s a legacy. When I was 10, my tap dance teacher [at Virginia’s] was Debbie. When I’m 60, you know who my tap dance teacher is? Debbie.”
West said the group of ladies does more than dance together.
“We’re like a big family, this group of ladies,” she said. “We go out to lunch once a month. Every Christmas we get together for a party. We usually get together a couple times in the summer for a party. We’ve been through deaths and tragedies, and we just support each other.”
Ulrich said, “On top of the specialness of it, we genuinely like each other, and that’s very rare where you get a group of people, especially women. We genuinely like each other.”
West said the group does accept new dancers over 50, but they must know how to tap dance before joining the group. For more information on joining or to book the group for an event, visit motownstrutters.com.