Eight is considered a particularly lucky number in Chinese culture, so Bertha “Bert” Chan's 88th birthday on Feb. 8 should have signaled the beginning of her most fortuitous year. Instead, she found herself covered in shingles on New Year's Day and suffered a heart attack as soon as she had healed enough to return to her studio to resume teaching tap dancing. But Chan isn't hung up on age, and she doesn't exactly fit a traditional Chinese mold, either. “Chinese don't tap; they do martial arts,” she quips.
Chan's dance practice is an age retardant. The muscle memory helps prevent dementia, she says, and she should know: She started tapping eight decades ago and still teaches classes for seniors six days a week at the Tap Academy in Santa Monica. The group of elderly hoofers often performs at retirement centers around the city, where, Chan jokes, “You can wear the same thing every time and they won't remember.”
A fifth-generation Californian, Chan's first tap hero was Eleanor Powell, and she has tapped with many greats, including Lynn Fields and Danny Daniels, but she has never lived in dance mecca New York. She was actually one of the first female plumbers in California in the mid-1960s, when women weren't eligible for plumbing licenses: “I hated the work; I just did it because they said I couldn't.”
The floor of Chan's modest dance studio is made of raw maple. Most people want shiny gym floors, but the raw wood brings out the sound of the steps, and it doesn't scar the way varnished boards do, absorbing the small dimples as naturally as sand absorbs rain.
Not that Chan doesn't care about appearance. When it comes to dancing, she'll tell you, “People don't look at your feet, they look at your face and arms.”
On a Saturday morning, she takes a break from teaching to join a small group of students tapping in front of a long mirror. Dressed in a black cotton T-shirt lined with rhinestones, she catches her own gaze with each pause, raising an eyebrow and extending her arms in front of her like graceful tentacles, lured by Sinatra's honeyed voice coming from an iPod speaker.
Photographs of Chan over the years with her various tap groups decorate the walls — portraits of women in identical yellow polka-dot shirts with black bow ties and matching headbands; dancers posing in fuchsia leotards and leg warmers; Chan on her 60th birthday tapping with Lynn Fields at Pepperdine.
It's no coincidence that most of the dancers in the photographs are women. “Men don't often stick with tap,” she says, “because it's too hard for them. They buy shoes for $80 and want to be Fred Astaire by the end of the first class.”