In a basement dance studio in Prairie Village, Billie Mahoney practices her tap to Tony Bennett's "Shine on Your Shoes." Her feet lightly caress the scuffed wood floor. Her black shoes make delicate clickety-click sounds. Her hips and legs swivel along with the music, and she throws in some graceful arm flaps. She does a sassy head bob to one side, which ruffles her cropped light-red hair, and catches her lower lip between her teeth. Then, she smiles broadly, and the rest of her dance troupe joins in to finish the song.
Billie turned 80 last November. Her eponymous dance troupe is made up of about a dozen women who meet the required minimum age: 50. (A woman in her 30s sometimes taps with them, too, though she's sometimes asked to put her hair in a bun and wear her glasses to disguise her youth.) The number of people in the group varies, depending on the event.
The Billie Mahoney Dancers have a repertoire of 20 basic dances, which they perform about three times a year. They're regulars at Senior Quest, a yearly event at the Overland Park Convention Center. Right now, they're gearing up for their next appearance, a five-minute demonstration for a dance workshop in Paola.
Five minutes of a workshop is but a blip in Billie's performance career. She worked in local nightclubs during the post-Pendergast years. She performed with Lionel Hampton at the Apollo Theater. She was summoned onstage by Gregory Hines at the Folly Theater's 100th anniversary — he dubbed her a "legend in tap dancing." She toured with Bob Hope and, as a drum majorette, led the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus into Madison Square Garden. She experienced Kansas City back when some clubs stayed open all night and attracted now-legendary jazz musicians.
But she and the troupe are excited for Paola, and with three and a half weeks to go, they're focusing on relearning their routine. The early efforts sound a little like a herd of horses clomping in a parade.
"Dance lightly," Billie says. "It's supposed to be a soft shoe."
She turns the volume of the CD player up as loud as it goes, but the women still strain to hear the music. After starting the song for another run-through, she stops when they get ahead of the beat.
"We can't hear it," calls out one of the dancers.
"Feel it," Billie commands. "You're not leaving that space" — the pauses between the steps, which need to be measured out.
"We're old and deaf," jokes another troupe member.
"Not quite," Billie says.
At her house in south Kansas City, Billie flips through a scrapbook that she put together to display at her 80th birthday party. The front of the white plastic binder reads: "Billie Mahoney. Dancing for more than 3/4 century!"
Her house has just been remodeled, so mementos are still strewn about. A living-room wall holds about 40 framed pictures in a precise grid pattern. The photos document her career highlights, such as a 1961 photo of her interviewing Chubby Checker. They were both taking part in a dance forum analyzing the twist. Nearby, on a side table, is a photo album from her 2006 trip to India. A brass iguana with scales made of blue lapis lazuli stone — a souvenir from her December trip to the Galápagos Islands — lounges on a half-ledge wall that separates her new kitchen from her office area.
As she goes through the scrapbook, she punctuates stories from the past with her crackling, rousing laugh. Some anecdotes bring her to tears, which come quickly and make her voice shake and squeak. When she describes a dance routine, her compact body demonstrates limber moves as she sits in place in her office chair.