Senior tap dancers enjoy new lease on life

Tap dancing is for everyone and can be customised to meet different needs and ages, writes septuagenarian Christine Sykes.

Tap dancing is for everyone and can be customised to meet different needs and ages, writes septuagenarian Christine Sykes.

Faced with retrenchment from a senior executive position in the public service when I was in my 60s, I searched for a new identity and pursuits to keep me active and engaged. One of these was to follow my dream and become a writer. I also took up tap dancing, like my beloved Auntie Peg had done when she retired.

When my first novel, The Changing Room, was published on my 70th birthday, I achieved my goal of being an author. This novel was inspired by my experience as a volunteer stylist and coach with Dress for Success Sydney, a styling and suiting service for women entering the workforce.

Eighteen months later Gough and Me: My journey from Cabramatta to China and beyond, was published. Being raised in Albert Street, Cabramatta, provided the basis for my memoir, which overlays the social and political events surrounding Gough Whitlam on my life.

Christine Sykes

Auntie Peg was the inspiration for my most recent novel, The Tap Cats of the Sunshine Coast. Her group performed in nursing homes and at community events on the Sunshine Coast and I had the opportunity to see her group perform as well as to join them in rehearsals.

In the 10 years since I followed in Peg’s footsteps and took up tap dancing, I have done classes with several teachers. Each of these took a different approach and taught different styles, which I had to practice to master. These experiences led me to research the history of tap dancing and provided a basis for parts of my novel.

My novel also highlights the well-documented health benefits of tap dancing, which include strength, balance and cognitive acuity. Tap dancing is for everyone and can be customised to meet different needs and ages. My current teacher who is in her eighties is a role model for us all, and one member of our group uses a chair to assist her to dance.

Tap dancing provides an all-round benefit for me. When I dance and hear the beat and rhythm of the music and my tap shoes, I feel joyous and uplifted. In addition, it is wonderful exercise for my body and mind. The other women in the group provide friendship and support, which we share during classes and afterwards in a local coffee shop – just as the characters in my novel do.

The three main characters in The Tap Cats of the Sunshine Coast – Sofia, Carol and Bonnie – have been friends since primary school. Their friendship is strained when long-held secrets are revealed and the Tap Cats enter the Senior Superstar Competition. The book includes characters of different backgrounds and ages, tackles issues facing women as they mature and celebrates their achievements.

Being an author has given me a whole new purpose in life. Since the publication of my first book I have given over 50 talks at events in book shops, libraries and at writers’ festivals. Many of these have been in locations where I have family or friends, or places I have longed to visit. I have also done interviews on radio and TV, which has extended both my skills and my depth of experience.

My circle of friends and acquaintances has expanded and I have met many other writers and even had the opportunity to share the stage with some of my favourite authors. In addition, I am on the committee of several writing organisations – the Society of Women Writers and Sutherland Fellowship of Australian Writers.

Writing has also fuelled my interest in travelling. I had the opportunity to do a writing course in Paris and have incorporated some of my travel experiences into my books. Writing is an activity I can do almost anywhere and provided a great diversion during Covid lockdowns.

My motto in retirement is to say yes to everything and give it my best shot – I will never know if I enjoy something until I try it and I may never get the chance again. This had led to many new experiences. As well as writing and tap dancing, I have done several walking trips, been an actor in the local theatre group, an extra on a TV show and even took up painting and had an art exhibition. All of these experiences have enriched my life and my writing.

Christine Sykes is an author and retired community worker and senior public servant, who lives on the New South Wales south coast

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