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Passion on tap

Two little girls with pink foam curlers in their hair are turning handsprings down the hallway of the Orlando Convention Center. A teenager in a gold cat suit is sinking into splits. Cloggers are flouncing in patchwork petticoats, clowns are practicing chorus-line kicks, and a 13-year-old Charlie Chaplin is waddling around her plastic cane.

At the end of the hall, near the stage door, Marge Friel slumps against the wall. She slips off her canvas sandals and sighs. Then she closes her eyes and lifts her left foot. Slowly, with both hands, she starts massaging her tired toes.

That hike from the hotel stole her wind. She and her husband tried to stay close to the convention center so they wouldn't have to drive, but they didn't stay close enough. The walk to the Dynamite National Talent Competition turned out to be a mile. (At least it felt that far in the Florida heat.) It's a Thursday afternoon in late July, just before 1 o'clock

Judging starts in half an hour.

Marge takes off her silver-rimmed glasses and rubs her eyes. They're clear and cobalt, nestled in soft wrinkles. Her brows are snow white, like her short, thick hair. She's wearing makeup, which is unusual: bright blue eye shadow, smudged black liner, red rouge. She has on a white tuxedo jacket with long tails, black cotton shorts and black tights.

She's 75.

A 12-year-old twirls by in ballet slippers. She stops beside Marge. She stares for a second.

Then the girl says, "Hey, excuse me, did you come here to watch your granddaughter or something?"

"No, Honey," Marge says sweetly. "I came here to dance."

Tapping your resources

The nuns never knew it, but Marge has been dancing since grammar school.

She grew up in Jersey City, N.J., the youngest of 10 children. Her parents could barely afford to feed their family, much less enroll Marge in the dance classes she longed for.

So Marge made sure she got to school early every morning. She would corner one of her classmates, a girl who took tap dancing. She'd make the girl teach her every move she'd learned the last week.

"Then we'd practice there in the cloakroom, tapping between the coats until the nuns came," Marge says. "That was always the best part of school."

When Marge was 11, her older sister saved a week's wages and took Marge to New York City. While Marge sat in the soft seats at Radio City Music Hall, watching the Rockettes, she started sobbing.

"I knew I'd never be one of them. Not without real dancing lessons," she says. "And oh, I wanted to be up on that stage so much."

She danced the Charleston at high school graduation, waltzed at her wedding, jitterbugged down the carpeted halls of the BASF offices, where she worked as an executive secretary.

When she was 37, her first husband had an aneurism, leaving her a widow with three young children. She taught her two sons and daughter how to ride a bike, roller skate and tango. She danced only in church performances.

Ten years later, she met a carpenter named Patrick. He took her to dinner and told her jokes and drove her to visit her children in college. Marge and Patrick have been married now for 27 years.

"Ever since I've known Marge, whenever any music was playing, I'd tell her, "Your motor's running. She just can't sit still,' " Patrick says. "I always knew she loved all kinds of dancing, any time, anywhere. But this tapping thing came later. At first, I thought it was just a phase."

A lifelong longing

Everyone has something they've always wanted to do.

Some of us are secret singers, crooning away in our cars. Some of us are artists or bass players or master chefs. Some of us write novels that would win the Pulitzer Prize _ if only they ever got published.

When these longtime longings don't kill us, they keep us going. They become our beacons. Our "if onlys . . ."

For six decades, the desire to dance simmered inside Marge.

Now here she is, a great-grandmother. About to take the stage at the Orlando Convention Center. Going for the gold.

Hundreds of dancers from across the Southeast are here today, from Texas and North Carolina and all across Florida. Forty-one are performing solos. Marge's friend Claudia Richartz is here to compete. She's 58. The next-oldest dancer is 17.

The division Marge is dancing in, Senior Solo, is for ages 13 and older.

Marge has been rehearsing for this day for two years. She spent $60 on her entry fee. Another $166 for two nights in the hotel. More than $100 on her costume and shoes. Hundreds more on lessons and private sessions. She pays by the month _ $10 a class. It adds up. Especially on a fixed income.

Today, she could win $400, or a trophy, maybe a medal. The money would be best, of course, then a trophy.

"But none of that matters," she says, straightening her white bow tie.

"I want, mostly, not to fall off the stage."

A little help from her friends

The hallway smells like hair spray, perfume and girl sweat. Along both walls, moms are helping their daughters unroll foam curlers and pin on rhinestone tiaras.

Bonnie Gray is trying to help Marge fix her makeup. Bonnie is Marge's instructor. She has choreographed cruise ship shows, sung for hundreds of audiences, danced for Liberace.

She has been working with Marge on and off for six years. She's trying to calm her down and psych her up for this national competition. She puts her hands on Marge's slumped shoulders.

"You tend to speed up when you're nervous, so slow down. And if you can't hear the music, count the steps in your head," she says. Marge nods and turns up her hearing aid. "And watch the edge of the stage. You haven't paced it out here. It's not as wide as you're used to."

Marge can't see very well anymore. The muscles in both her eyes are degenerating. She can no longer judge depths. So when she climbs the six steps to the stage, Bonnie will have to hold her elbow to help guide her. And when she dances, Marge will have to stay near the back of the stage.

"You'll do fine," Bonnie says. "You're going to be great. You just need some lipstick."

Marge is a natural performer, Bonnie says. But she's uncomfortable with the idea of selling herself. So Bonnie has been trying to help her. "I keep telling her, "Marge, work what you got.' "

Bonnie also has been trying to convince Marge to get a new hat. The top hat she has used for the last two years is beaten up. The glitter is flaking off. The white carnation pinned to the brim is turning brown.

"But this is my lucky hat," Marge keeps saying. "And, besides, Patrick gave me that corsage for Mother's Day" . . . 1995.

She rummages around in her cosmetic case, pulls out Tums, Bengay and Aleve. Finally, she finds the lost lipstick. "I got this before my youngest grandson was born," she says, smearing the red wax across her pale lips.

"My makeup is older than my competition."

Hot flashes and fishnet stockings

She bought her first pair of tap shoes when she was 65. She tapped around the living room, across the tiled bathroom, through the kitchen. She became Ginger Rogers, Gwen Verdon, all her girlhood idols.

Then, finally, she signed up for lessons. One evening a week. After a month, she was going every day. After she retired, she studied dance in New Jersey during the summer and in St. Petersburg during her snowbird stays.

In 1991, she and Patrick bought a condo on St. Pete Beach and moved in full time. Marge joined a group of over-40 dancers, the "Hot Flashers" and the "Men-o-Pause." They dance for free, mostly at nursing homes and senior centers.

Marge also signed up for year-round classes with Bonnie and Cheryl Lee Jorgensen. She performed in dance school recitals alongside tutu-clad kindergarteners. She sponsored two young students at the studio who couldn't afford to continue taking classes.

The students never knew who their patron was. Marge doesn't mention it.

She takes three classes a week and dances in the rec room at her condo complex every day. But performing is her favorite part. Being in front of an audience transforms her.

"One day, I came home from tap class so excited," Marge recalls. "I told Patrick, "Guess what? We're going to appear at the veterans center and the Sunshine senior center this week'."

Patrick didn't look up from his paper. "When are you going to appear in the kitchen again?" he asked.

Actually, Patrick entirely accommodates his wife's interest. He drives her to all her dance classes and waits in the car. He chauffeurs her to every performance, recital and competition.

"Ever since she started dancing, she's just got all this energy, all this excitement," he says. "Sometimes, I have a hard time handling it."

How many 83-year-olds get to watch their wives shimmy across the stage in fishnet stockings?

Behind the purple curtain

In the makeshift dressing area behind the stage, Marge is getting scared. It's 2:50 p.m. Two more girls and she's on.

Her hands are sweaty. Her mouth is dry.

She doesn't have to do this, you know.

Last night, after trying to eat dinner at Red Lobster, she and Patrick went back to their hotel room. The door wouldn't open. The repairman didn't leave until almost midnight.

Not that she could have slept anyway. She never does before a competition. But she would have liked a little quiet time at least.

When she finally lay down and looked into the darkness, she kept asking herself, "Why am I doing this?"

Most people don't want to be judged. Especially when they're 75. Especially against girls younger than their granddaughters.

Most people would be content performing. They would delight in the applause, the encores.

Not Marge.

She danced with 18-year-olds in a Las Vegas competition. She danced at the Waldorf Astoria in a tap showdown. She got a standing ovation at a talent contest in Lakeland.

She craves validation as much as silver taps.

She doesn't just want to take bows. She wants a gold medal. She wants to prove to someone, everyone (maybe herself, most of all) that she's not just having fun here. She's doing real work.

She's a dancer.

"You know when I'm doing my turns, in the opening sequence?" Marge asks Bonnie behind the purple curtain. Bonnie nods and tugs Marge's leotard down in the back. "Well, should I spot at the audience? Or where I'm going?"

"Where you're going," Bonnie says, locking eyes with her to make sure she's listening. "Marge, please, look where you're going."

Best foot forward

The music stops. The auditorium explodes with applause. A 15-year-old girl in a gingham dress skips off the stage.

"Good luck!" she calls to Marge. "You get 'em, girl."

Marge tries to smile, but it comes out a grimace. She's shaking. She can't remember what beat she starts on. She can't remember which foot is which.

Bonnie cradles Marge's left elbow and escorts her up the stairs. "You're going to be great," she tells her. "It's only three minutes of your life. Now, start on four, left foot forward . . ."

The judges are all women, three former Broadway performers. They're grading dancers on technique, execution, stage presence, choreography and costume. They're sitting in the front row.

Marge climbs the top step, then stops and bows her head. She used to pray, "Please, God, don't let me throw up." Now, she asks the Lord just to let her do her best.

"Next up, age 75 years, please give a warm Dynamite welcome to contestant number 1,600," the announcer is shouting. "This is Marge, in Top Hat, White Tie and Tails . . ."

An invisible band strikes up the song. The familiar notes throb through the auditorium. Tony Bennett. These kids don't know him. They don't even know Ginger Rogers.

Marge has heard this song hundreds of times, but she still has trouble making out some of the lyrics: "I'm . . . putting on my top hat, tying up my white tie . . ."

She side shuffles and paddle turns, and remembers to tip her hat. She struts grapevines in a slow circle and digs in on the back kicks. Cheryl Jorgensen choreographed this number to showcase Marge's style. Marge speeds up now, just a beat. Then she gets back on track. Tony Bennett sings on, "Nothing now could take the wind out of my sails . . ." Marge flicks her wrists and wriggles her hips and spins on the balls of her feet. She smiles sweetly at the audience she can't see. During the finale, she wobbles slightly while doing the wings.

She's still panting after the music ends. She bends into her bow. Someone starts whistling. In the front row, the judges are applauding.

Marge stumbles off the stage into the darkness. Bonnie catches her and hugs her hard. Marge bites her lip, trying to squint back the tears. When she finally catches her breath, she sobs, "I blew it!" She pushes Bonnie away, hangs her head. "I missed some steps and got off beat. I wasn't good."

And now for the moment . . .

The two little girls are still turning handsprings down the hallway when the announcer calls contestants into the auditorium. It's 4:55 p.m. The teenager in the gold cat suit slinks onto the stage and sits cross-legged beside the cloggers.

Marge can't sit on the stage. If she did, she might never get back up.

So Bonnie slides a chair onto the right edge, beside the trophy table. She gives Marge a thumbs up. She helps her sit down.

The lights go out. Blue, purple and red spots blink around the room. The audience falls silent.

"All right, all right, all right!" the announcer screams into the microphone. "All right, children. It's time."

Marge scuffs her flat canvas sandals against the stage. She waits through Little Miss Dynamite and Junior Vocal and Senior Jazz awards. She applauds as girls one-tenth her age struggle to hold up towering trophies. She claps for the chorus line of clowns.

When the announcer finally calls out the category of Senior Solo Tap, Marge doesn't hear him. Claudia elbows her.

"And for contestant number 1,600," the announcer says. Marge holds her breath. Claudia crosses her fingers. Backstage, Bonnie shuts her eyes, hoping . . .

"We have a gold medal."

Marge doesn't move. She sits there in disbelief. She didn't win the money or a trophy. But she gets to bring home a gold medal.

Claudia nudges her toward the awards table. "Go on," she whispers. "It's your turn."

The music never stops

After it's all over, while the other contestants are calling their grandparents to brag about their awards, Marge borrows a cell phone and calls her kids in New Jersey and Chicago.

On her way out of the convention center, an 11-year-old boy in baggy shorts grabs her hand. He'd seen Marge onstage. He wants to dance with her. So she shows him how to jitterbug, right there in the lobby. He laughs and twirls and lets her lead.

And for just a minute, Marge is back in that grammar school cloakroom and her whole life is ahead of her. And everything is possible.