With age comes Wizdom, hip-hop
In her early 20s, back in 1977, she took to the basketball court at half-time as part of the first cheerleading-dance team for the Washington Bullets. For the next four years, she was a Bullette, wearing high-cut red hot pants and red wedge shoes to shimmy across the court.
Some years later, the Bullets rebranded as the Wizards, and the Bullettes became the Wizard Girls. When that dance team went coed this season, they became the Wizard Dancers.
And now, Diane (dancers are asked not to use their last names) is back out on the court dancing during basketball games — as part of a new group of dancers over 50 called the Wizdom Dance Team.
Of course, musical styles have also evolved over the years, so Diane has found herself learning to dance to a different beat: hip-hop music.
“This grandma had never twerked before!” said Diane, who lives in Gaithersburg, Md.
“It’s a challenge to learn a different style, and learn quickly. At 63, it’s a great challenge to remember step after step after step, and how to do it correctly, sometimes. But it’s good for your memory.”
So far, the Wizdom has danced at a time-out and at a half-time holiday show with the Wizard Dancers, and with a youth dance team called — what else? — the Wizkids. They have also performed with the Capital City GoGos, the Wizards’ affiliated minor league basketball team.
The roar of the crowd
The audience reaction has been strong.
At the Wizdom’s debut, noted Derric Whitfield, the dance team director, “the fans were cheering so loud you’d think we won the game.”
Diane recalled, “when I walked up to my seat after performing for the first time, I was stopped by 10 to 15 people saying, ‘You did a great job. We are so proud to see seniors getting out there. You give us hope for what we can do.’”
Whitfield noted the Wizdom dance team is part of a larger revamping of entertainment at Wizards games, along with the introduction of coed dance teams.
He’s had experience with older dancers, as he used to coach a similar dance group for the Houston Rockets. “It’s all about entertainment,” he said. “Who doesn’t want to see these older adults performing?
“They’ve been great, and up for the challenge,” he added of the new team’s members. “They are getting more confidence, which is great. And the response has been overwhelming.”
AARP sponsors the team, providing video services and publicity by featuring the team on its website.
“We’re always on the lookout for really good examples of showcasing people 50+ disrupting aging and challenging people’s current beliefs,” said Barbara Shipley, AARP’s senior vice president for brand integration.
“The main thing for us is, it doesn’t matter how old these dancers are, but that they are doing it. They are really surprising people, and we’re really proving it’s not about age, it’s about your experience, it’s about your enthusiasm, it’s about your passion,” Shipley said.
The local auditions
Back in September, 55 dance team hopefuls auditioned at Trinity Washington University. Whitfield said he was so impressed with their talent that he selected 20 dancers rather than the 15 he had intended to hire, including a sole male member of the team.
The dancers range in age from 50 to 76, live throughout the Washington area, and are paid for their part-time work.
For Diane, joining the team felt like coming full circle, reprising her youthful cheerleading at Bullets games.
But she also does it for her health. When she was 48, she found out she has a genetic predisposition for heart disease.
“Staying fit and active, and moving my muscles with weight-bearing exercise, has importance for my longevity,” she said. “I want to live a long life for my children and grandchildren.
“My cardiologist was absolutely thrilled [I joined the dance team]. He sees the joy I find in dance and entertaining.”
Still doing splits
For Wizdom team member Sharon, who is 56 and lives in Alexandria, Va., joining the team was a matter of good timing.
Her friend’s sister had recently auditioned for a similar team affiliated with the Golden State Warriors in California. A Wizards season ticket holder, Sharon checked for a Wizards senior dance team and discovered auditions were about to be held.
So she signed up, despite the fact she had no dance experience. The closest she came was being a junior varsity cheerleader in the ninth grade. But she could still do splits.
“My mom and my sisters had the dancing genes in my family. They just laughed at me,” said Sharon, who recently retired from Verizon. “But I wanted to do something different, challenge myself.”
She was worried nerves would get the best of her before the first performance in November. But she knew after hours of practice, some following along with videos on DVD, she was prepared. She even performed her splits, front and center on the floor.
“Fans were coming up to us, saying, ‘When are you performing again?’ They were falling in love with us, like we were stars or something that night. When I went back to my seat, people started clapping for me.”
And the dancers have a special camaraderie. “It was just an instant friendship with all of us. We act like teenagers” with each other, she said.
Love of the limelight
Another dancer, Dottye, has been a member of the MC Steppers, a dance group at the Model Cities Senior Wellness Center in Washington, D.C. that performs frequently at events of the D.C. Office on Aging.
When she was younger, Dottye was an actor, performing with the Negro Ensemble Company in New York and touring with them.
She also had numerous spots as an extra and doing bit parts in soap operas and other television shows, in addition to her day job as a physical therapist for a home care company.
But before joining the MC Steppers, Dottye hadn’t danced since she was in her 20s. After she retired, she took yoga, jazz dance and ballet classes.
She was nervous during the first Wizdom performance, until she heard the approving roar of the fans. She said the attention has made her take another look at her appearance, buying new clothes and making sure her hair looks good when she goes out.
“You never know, you may find a boyfriend,” she quipped. “I just pray I get kept on [the team] until I’m in a walker and can’t walk across the floor,” she said.
“God waited until I was 64 to get me where I’m happy and on the floor dancing. My prayers are answered. I have a big smile on my face. I’m just loving this time of life.”