The Golden Dancers
Senior women kick up their heels to bring a little joy to others (and themselves)
As Sue Nelson slips on her black gloves, Lynda Petersen is busy making sure her black felt hat sits on her head “just so.” Rachel Rosin stands nearby, buttoning up her red satin and sequin jacket, smoothing down the seams as she goes. This once chatty group of women grows quiet.
“Is everyone ready for music?” Mana Lesman-Seward asks as the women take their positions. In seconds, the tune “Do You Love Me?” by The Contours blasts over the small boombox in the corner of the room. That’s when the eight women who make up the Golden Dancers come to life. Jazz hands abound, the smiles are electric and there’s little doubt that this group is having a good time.
To be in this spirited dance ensemble, there is only requirement: You have to be at least 55 years old.
“And, you have to be able to walk. Really,” says Mana, the group’s choreographer. “We take whoever wants to come and if they choose to eventually perform after they learn a few numbers, then they’re welcome to take part in the performance aspect of what we do.”
What started 33 years ago as a way for senior women to move has grown to help friendships blossom. The women meet to practice twice a week and before the music starts to play, everyone spends time getting caught up on each other’s lives. It’s been that way since the beginning.
“Sometime in 1987, I got a call from three or four ladies from the Widows and Widowers Association and they said, ‘We want a physical activity and we think dance would be fun. Can we join your group?’” At the time, Mana led a group of young adults. She laughs when she says, “I told them, ‘Well, I don’t think you are going to want to do hip-hop.’” She urged them to come to one of her classes and maybe she’d start a new group with the choreography and music geared just for them.
“That’s when the Golden Dancers were born,” Mana says.
Since then, Mana says she’s watched three generations of dancers come and go. Some have moved on from dance. Others felt they weren’t physically able. Others still passed away.
“Little by little, new dancers come to fill in those spaces,” Mana says.
Linda Van Sky was one of the women who filled in that space. This space ended up filling her soul.
“I had lost my husband,” Linda says. “I lost my father. I lost my brother. When I lost my sister — we were very close, she was my sounding board — I just shut down. I was in a dark place and I was growing roots in my recliner.” She decided that had to stop.
“I know myself well enough that I knew I needed to get out and do something,” she says. “This turned out to be such a wonderful group. I was one who didn’t really know my right from my left.”
Without skipping a beat, Rachel chimes in, “Do you know that now?” The whole room erupts in laughter and it’s clear there’s something special here.
“Yes, we have members who just do their own thing,” Sonya Skaggs says. “We had one woman — her facial expressions were so great that no one cared what her feet were doing just as long as it was in time with the music.”
For Sonya, the need to move was her reason for joining. In the late 1980s, she noticed her weight start to creep up due to her sedentary job. She started taking tap dancing lessons before eventually joining the Golden Dancers. She’s been here ever since.
“I just love to move. And that goes way back,” Sonya says. “When I was very young in Chicago Heights, we danced. Everybody danced.”
The group performs about 10 times a year. Their circuit includes retirement communities, big birthday parties, retirement parties, plus events like Huntley Project Homesteader Days, SummerFair and Festival of Trees. They even put their dancing shoes on for a former member’s wake.
“I danced all my life,” says member Birdie Dapples. “I saw these ladies perform once and I went right over to them and said, ‘You guys are having entirely too much fun. How do I join you?’” Now she books all the group’s performances. “I go because I love to dance,” she adds, “I stay because I love the people.”
Every Monday afternoon and late Thursday morning, you’ll find these ladies polishing up their moves for whatever performance they have next on the books. When we visited with them, they were working on a routine to the music “Witchy Woman” for a Halloween shindig at the Adult Resource Alliance in the Heights. They all brought their decked-out witches hats to compare their costume creativity.
While this little number seems to be a favorite in the group, Doris Hill, the most senior of the group at 85, says with a smile, “My favorite is ‘If My Friends Could See Me Now.’ We use feather boas for that one. It’s got a really good ending.”
Since more than half of their routines feature a kick line, when asked if any of the members once dreamed of being a Radio City Rockette, Lynda Petersen laughs and says, “Like we are tall enough or like our legs are long enough, are you kidding?” Doris adds, “Look how short my legs are! I need to hem petites!”
While Doris is the eldest, Tamara Liebmann is sure to share that she’s “one of the babies of the bunch” at 64. Just like her counterparts, she loves this group and the camaraderie it provides.
“I like when we can bring a smile to people’s faces,” she says.
Rachel Rosin wasn’t sure if she’d be able to smile while dancing ever again. Dancing was a pastime she and her husband shared for decades. In fact, they met on the dance floor. After she lost her husband, Sue Nelson prodded her to join the group.
“I said, ‘I don’t’ know if I can dance anymore. I don’t know if I can do that.’ Sue said, ‘Well, I am just picking you up,’” Rachel says. “I have no regrets. I wish I could pick someone else up. This is really good for the soul.”
As she looks around the room, Rachel adds, “This is a sisterhood.”
Sitting in a chair nearby, Sonya Skaggs nods and says, “This is a special place.”
THE GOLDEN DANCERS are always looking for new members. If you’d like to learn more about the group and how to join, call Mana Lesman-Seward at (406) 252-5780.