"Salute to the Elders"

High-Stepping, Hot-Lick Playing Seniors Take Stage at KCA

Forget the knitting needles and the orthopedic lace-ups. These grandmothers belt blues, wear sequined tap shoes and strut their stuff. They're a three-woman band and a six-woman chorus line with a combined 528 years of experience in show business. They're the Hampton Sisters Band and the Silver Belles and they're taking over the Bomhard Theater at the Kentucky Center for the Arts on Saturday, December 8 at 8 p.m. The evening, "A Salute to the Elders," promises to teach the youngsters under 60 a thing or two about style.

In the mid-Thirties the Apollo Theater created a chorus line of exceptionally talented dancers whose show-stopping routines launched them into dance legend. They challenged every chorus line of their day, including the Radio City Rockettes, to an open dance contest. All declined. No line was willing to go up against the Apollo dancers. In 1986 six of the original Apollo high-kickers came tapping out of retirement. They reunited, rehearsed and began doing shows as the Silver Belles. The youngest of the chorus "girls" is pushing 60 and the eldest is an enviable and energetic 80.

The Silver Belles' artistic director, Marion Coles, 75, wife of tap-dance whiz Honi Coles, says, "We don't kick as high as we used to, but we've still got the swing." The other Silver Belles include former chorus line captain Bertye Lou Wood, who led the dancers for four shows a day, sharing the stage with dance legend Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and opening for band leaders Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Harry James and Tommy Dorsey.

According to Hazel Walter Rogers, who's in her late 60s, "The old bones get a little creaky, but dancing's just like riding a bicycle. You never forget how."

The Silver Belles may claim they've slowed down, but one critic recently wrote, after seeing them perform, "The Silver Belles came out on the hardwood stage and tore the lacquer off it."

By the age of three or four, Aletra Hampton and her sister Virtue and their four brothers and one sister were performing with their parents, touring the U.S. in Deacon Hampton's Family Band. As adults, the nine-member Hampton Family Band played Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theater, the first group ever to perform at the Apollo without yet having a record on the market. They shared the stage with Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole and Count Basie.

Virtue, now 68, started out on the tuba, switched to a sousaphone and eventually settled on the double bass. Aletra, 74, stuck with strings, playing the Italian harp and the piano. Today, joined by Virtue's daughter Tamar, they are the Hampton Sisters Band still playing and singing. Rounding out the band are Alonzo "Pookie" Johnson and Lawrence Clark Sr. Their music ranges from a swinging version of "Route 66" and "Cab Driver" to moving renditions of "God Bless the Child" and "Motherless Child."

Tickets for "Salute to the Elders" are $9.50 for cabaret tables, $8.50 for Bomhard Theater seats. For reservations call the Kentucky Center ticket service at 584-7777 or 1-800-283-7777.