BY VENI FIELDS
SANDBRIDGE — It was a fun little miracle in Sandbridge. It came with a pair of 52-year-old tap shoes.
Tina Ciccone had been searching for a while for just the right dance class to have a little fun and get a little exercise. Nothing fancy. Tap for adult beginners.
But while she was sitting at the front desk at Sandbridge Community Chapel United Methodist Church earlier this year, the front door opened and a former Rockette walked in.
Sherry Pesut wanted to teach a tap class for adult beginners.
“I could not believe it,” Ciccone said. “I was thrilled.”
For her part, so was Pesut. She had no idea how her idea would be received when she stopped by to check at the community center near the church that she passed every day on Sandpiper Road.
Arrangements were made. Emails went out. The class began on Feb. 2.
Now, every Thursday evening, a dozen or more people from ages 20 to over 70 gather. In the same rehearsal shoes she wore at Radio City Music Hall – and with Anne Marie Pesut, her nine-year-old granddaughter, as her assistant and demonstrator – Pesut teaches them to tap.
“It’s perfect,” Pesut said. “We are having so much fun.”
Her life has been that way, in large part. From her first dance class in Dayton, Ohio, when she was three in 1946, the story of her path to the south end of Virginia Beach sparkles here and there with glamorous anecdotes and famous names.
Pesut trained in summers as a teen in New York with the June Taylor Dancers, who brought in guest teachers like Gene Kelly. She escorted soap opera stars at Soapfest in Marco Island, Fla., celebrities at the GLAAD Awards in Los Angeles.
She danced in musicals on professional and community theater stages. She married, had children and became a nurse. Along the way, she also painted, taught, ran a wedding business, wrote a book.
And aside from a period of 10 years, Pesut said, “I have always danced.”
Whether or not that would remain the case was threatened a couple of years ago. An Achilles tendon injury from 2011 finally required surgery after Pesut and her retired husband, Martin “Marty” Pesut, moved to Virginia Beach from Ohio to help the couple’s son and daughter-in-law with three very busy children. It became clear that Pesut’s injury was getting in the way.
“I told the doctor if he could get me back on my feet,” Pesut said, “I would teach dance again.”
Her doctor did. During almost a year of recovery and physical therapy, Pesut passed by the Sandbridge church and community center, wondering if it might work as a sort of testing ground for returning to her lifelong passion.
Near the beginning of the year, she dropped in to see.
For the last couple of months, in front of a mural of dunes and sea birds, Pesut and Anne Marie lead students in time steps and shuffles, slaps and ball changes. After two hours of a special double class for some extra help, the dancer, who will turn 74 this summer, isn’t even winded.
“She seems to do it so effortlessly,” said Marilyn Meredith, 64, who took the class for the same reasons as Ciccone. An eighth-grade English teacher and drama and forensics coach at Corporate Landing Middle School, Meredith last danced with her daughter 20 years ago at a “Mommy and Me” class at a studio where Meredith’s daughter was taking tap and ballet.
“I was a theater major in college and was in a touring USO show,” Meredith said, “but it has been a long time since ‘Mommy and Me.’”
She found Pesut to be an easygoing instructor.
“She is a great teacher.”
Hailey Seery, 20, a Tidewater Community College computer science student and graduate of Ocean Lakes High School, where she participated in theater and dance, laughed about a comment a family member made when she signed up for Pesut’s class.
“She didn’t think I’d like it,” Seery said. “Everyone here is older than I am, but I went to ballet classes where the teacher spoke only in French. It was so overwhelming. This class is fun. We all have a good time here. That’s what I’m looking for, and I love it.”
Experience doesn’t matter in the wide, bright room in Sandbridge. Some of the shoes that click across the linoleum tile floor are scuffed and broken in. Others are barely creased.
Students lined up in two rows on a recent Thursday evening. Anne Marie cued the beginning of Frank Ocean’s “Lost” on a cell phone speaker.
Because of her surgery, Pesut isn’t able to hop anymore, which is one of the places her granddaughter comes in. A jazz and theater dance student new to tap but catching on quickly, Anne Marie picks up where Pesut’s ability is a little short.
Together they lead, Pesut standing next to one student or another, sometimes taking a hand, chanting “yes, good, nice, keep going, you got it.” Laughing with them during stumbles, joking at times: “This is a disaster, but we’ll get there. Anne Marie please show them. You got it. Fantastic I told you you could.”
Students said the famous Rockette kick line at the end of the class is everyone’s favorite part. They do it every week.
In leggings and tunics, black and some neon, arm in arm across the room, they line up while Pesut and Anne Marie lead them:
“Hop, bend, hop, kick, hop, bend, hop, kick … ”
Friendships have formed over the last nine weeks, Ciccone said. After tucking away their taps and changing into street shoes, some meet after class for happy hour.
Ciccone clapped her hands after hugging Pesut goodnight, closing up and turning off lights after a recent Thursday class.
“I am so excited,” she said. “Every week, I can’t wait till the next one. This is like prayer, answered.”
The tap class is open to men and women, and meets Thursdays at 7 p.m. at the community center across the street from Sandbridge Community Chapel United Methodist Church, 3041 Sandpiper Rd. A 6 p.m. class is available for extra help and new students. Cost is $10 per class. Contact the community center at (757) 721-3105.
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