Over 50 shades of grey
Forget slippers and knitting. These senior Territorians are rocking their world in a far more exciting way…
A DARWIN dance troupe of senior citizens has been giving its members “a reason to get up and do their hair” for a quarter of a century.
The Grey Panthers was founded by choreographers Beth Shelton and Sarah Calver to cater to the artistic, social and health needs of seniors.
The Tracks Dance Company group boasts 35 members aged 56-83 and has been meeting for rehearsals every Friday morning since 1988.
Co-artistic director and dance co-ordinator David McMicken said he was amazed by the women when he started working with them in 1992.
“(They gave) singing, tapping, ballroom dancing, jitterbug and jive, writing, roller skating, rap dancing and a spin on the floor a good go,” he said.
“(They showed a) state of ageing with vigour, of having something to say and being unafraid to do new things.
“They maintain and increase their dance and performance skills to work on a healthy lifestyle, to learn new choreography and dances, and to maintain a dance repertoire.”
Some extra testosterone has recently been added to the mix too.
“We have one male who comes in each week from Batchelor, and one who comes each year from Canberra, where he and his wife are in a similar group,” Mr McMicken said.
A healthy interest
Frank Sinatra and Michael Buble are favourites with the group, but Mr McMicken said they dance to a wide variety of styles. He described the Grey Panthers as “joyful”.
“(They’re) a singing, dancing troupe of wise elders that sure know how to party,” he said.
“People want to be like them, often bemoaning the fact that, at 55, they are too young to join.”
But the dancers are not immune to struggles. Mr McMicken said all the entertainers fight their own battles.
“Other than having to face up to fears of performing in front of large groups, and having to remember moves to be able to repeat them over a two-week season, many of the challenges are health-related,” he said.
“As the body stops doing what it used to do when younger, and the memory starts to take longer, many people can fall into a sense of isolation and depression and pain.
“We have hip replacements, pacemakers, operations on every conceivable joint, depressions, asthma, Parkinson’s disease, and other things that tend to take a back seat once they are dancing.
“The weekly class and performances give people a reason to get up and do their hair, exercise, and have fun.”
On centre stage
But the Grey Panthers do not want to be known for their inabilities and difficulties – “rather for their achievements and great joy”.
The group regularly performs at cultural, social and charity events including Darwin Festival, Biggest Morning Tea fundraisers, Portrait of a Senior Territorian, Rotary, Arthritis Foundation, Darwin Festival Pool Party, Batchelor Linga Longa Festival, Firemen’s Pensioner Christmas Party, seniors’ villages and homes, Reclaim the Night and the Palmerston Seniors’ Month Eisteddfod.
“We are just finishing a big Chorus Line extravaganza, and earlier this year we celebrated the Silver Jubilee. They performed new works from local choreographers,” Mr McMicken said. People want to be like them, often bemoaning the fact that, at 55, they are too young
Longest-serving Grey Panthers dancer Shirley Somers, 79, has been with the club for 14 years after looking for an activity to help fill her time.
“When I was young I went to the movies and there were lots of musicals in those days; lots of dances with Ginger Rogers and Rita Hayworth,” she said.
“I would have liked to have done it then, but I never had the opportunity.”
When Mrs Somers turned 65 she attended a Grey Panthers rehearsal and was soon dancing to show tunes like she had always dreamed she would.
“I went along and that was it,” she said. “I love dancing, especially to Frank Sinatra.
“It’s lovely to have the friendships with ladies my age and the exercise is wonderful; it keeps our bodies and minds healthy.
“You have to use your memory, which is important when you’re getting older.”
Ms Somers said she will continue dancing for as long as she can “keep up”.
“It makes me feel good,” she said.
A support network
Oldest Grey Panthers member Bette Chapman, 83, said she gets a “sense of belonging with a group of friends who share their highs and lows”.
They performed at the Portrait of a Senior Territorian launch on October 18 and have been booked for several Christmas events. They have also performed in more than 20 Tracks Dance full-length seasons.
“This has been one of the most consistent groups I’ve ever worked with,” Mr McMicken said. “They began more like my mother 22 years ago.
“Now many are like my older sisters and brothers. They give me a strong sense of family.
“Seeing the support and care these women give to each other has been great. I really miss the group if I have to go away for work.”
Mr McMicken said most of the members had “a great slice of Territory history living inside them”.
“With an ageing population, it is the seniors that provide a great deal of volunteer work for our society,” he said. “I see them as a great value to our future.
“I’m proud to be involved with the Grey Panthers and love that it’s dance that keeps them together, and that some magic ingredient is working. I don’t like to mess with the magic.”
Punny Vegter, Antoinetta Vanzella and Shirley Somers are members of the Grey Panthers