By Betty Digby
I’m in the December years of my life, but in my heart, I am young. I am grateful and upbeat, with a mind that is relatively sharp and an enthusiasm to pursue many lifelong interests and even start new ventures. I’m still me! But my body is 94 years old and I'm sure that, from the outside, all most people see is an old lady who needs a cane for support as she shuffles along and who squints her eyes as she struggles to see a face. In our youth-obsessed society, the elderly are sometimes discarded like trash. If we're lucky, we're invited to special affairs or allowed to view social events from the sidelines. If we're really lucky, as am I, we have friends and a loving family who bring magic into our lives and keep us believing in sunny tomorrows.
Last summer, I attended the wedding of my sister’s granddaughter Carolina (Carly) Herrera and her friend since middle school, James (Jamie) McSherry. The wedding was held in the backyard of their home, across from the Town Square in Woodstock, a picturesque little town in Connecticut. Their two-bedroom Victorian frame house on the main street had been a three-dimension stamp business and the backyard, a large parking lot. But by the day of the wedding, the parking lot had become a fairytale scene. Guests were ushered into a quarter-acre of sod, with creatively-shaped small gardens full of flowers and decorative plants, birdbaths, and stone statuary, under the full-grown maple trees that line the perimeter. Strategically placed white wicker chairs and wooden benches invited all to remain and enjoy the mood.
At the far end of the yard were giant white tents, one that could hold 100 guests for dining at large, formally set round tables, and another that had a finished floor for dancing and space for the band. Creative Carly had flowers everywhere, not only on the dining tables and areas where guests would mingle, but also around the two spacious portable restrooms (with sinks) that stood at the front sidewalk—not that anyone would have recognized them as portable privies. They were camouflaged by actual wooden doors from the main house and surrounded by potted bushes street side. Only the yard-side doors, adorned with flower wreaths, were visible to welcome those in need.
Near the entrance to the back gardens was a sturdy, dark wooden arbor, where the wedding party stood for the ceremony. Occasional drops of rain fell as Dan Paige, officiant and a close friend of Carly and Jamie, paid tribute to the couple and set the tone for the wedding. A light drizzle continued throughout the evening; but it didn’t matter, for as twilight drew near, tiny lights outlined everything in the garden, and we were transported into a fantasy land.
The beauty of the setting was eclipsed only by the beauty of the bride in her low-V-neck, sleeveless white silk gown, with sequins on the bodice and sculptured lace around the hem. After the service, her train was fastened to tiny silk ball buttons that followed the curvature of her spine. She was so slim, with her light hair flowing around her delicate face and tanned shoulders, as she danced on her wedding night. I kept watching, following her steps, remembering the days long ago when I was the queen of the dance floor.
The music was exceptional! Jay Stollman, step-father of the bride, is a professional musician who performs world-wide. In his work, he meets many famous entertainers and makes many friends, for Jay has a quiet, genuine personality that draws people to him. He went all out for Carly’s wedding, bringing in the best musicians with whom he has recently worked: Christine Tambakis, a singer from Great Britain; Andy Abel, master guitarist; Scott Spray, bass player; Drew McKeon, drummer for Michael Bolton; Brazilian guitarist Renan Nerone. And there isn’t a better blues/rock/soul vocalist around than Jay himself. When I’m in Jupiter, Florida (Jay’s hometown), and can hear him perform, I’m captured by his first song and linger until the last notes fade away as the venue closes for the night. Words like “outstanding,” “incredible,” “excellent” cannot fully describe the energy of the music that night. There was no room on the dance floor; it was filled with happy individuals, dancing the night away.
And my heart danced with them. I can’t listen to the beat of the music without tapping my toes and fingers to the rhythm. When I was in my late teens, I attended Saturday evening ballroom classes at Vera Lebou’s Dance Studio in Pittsburgh and soon became captivated by the art. I would dance with the instructors on those evenings and was chosen to be the lead performer for the waltz, tango, and samba ballroom review in the studio’s recital on the Nixon Theatre stage.
Since then, my enthusiasm for dance has never waned. My husband was a trombonist and loved lively music, but he would be the first to admit that he was not a dancer. Although he would not take to the dance floor himself, he always encouraged me to get out there and enjoy the music my way. Sure enough, like an animal that can sniff a good friend, somehow a smooth dancer would always come my way. Glenn Parkins and I found that we were natural dance partners at the Young Couples dances at Christ Methodist Church. Sometimes he even included lifts in our dance routines! At a Rotary conference in Seven Springs, Tom Shook and Ed Harmon introduced me to George Moray—a blind man—and said we should dance. George was an amazing person and dancer, easy to follow—and we continued dancing most of the evening. He would remark about the “cool, smooth touch” of my silk dress, and the “faint woodsy scent” of my perfume, or the “softness” of my wavy, shoulder-length hair, but never about how well we flowed to the music. We just kept dancing. And I danced… and danced… at many conferences and gatherings over the years. The ability to express the rhythm through the art of dance meant so much to me.
But that was a lifetime ago. For the last 30 years (with a few exceptions), my dancing has been limited to a few line dances at weddings. We live in a society where aging implies undesirability, invalidity. Nobody voluntarily asks an aged woman with a cane to dance. I’ve learned how to sway to the music on the sidelines, by myself.
Last weekend was different. As I was moving to the music from my seat at the wedding reception, my sister’s college-age grandson, Sean Bodnar, came around from the other side of the table, offered his hand, and led me to the floor. He said, “I’m not a dancer, but I’d love to try.” Good for me, because I didn’t know how my arthritic, scar-filled knees would respond. We swayed to the slow tempo, my hips responding with a slight rhumba, and I told him his dancing was great… and I meant it.
A short time later, Dan came to the table. (My sister and I were seated next to him at the rehearsal dinner and we discussed many topics that affected our lives.) Dan looked at me and said, “You are the oldest person I have ever known. I’d like to dance with you.” He started dancing, crossing his arms and moving his knees in a “Charleston” manner—and I went along. He was a good leader, and he probably wanted to see what I could do.
At the end of the number, Jay announced that he had a special request. It was for an oldie, and those who knew it were to sing. The band started playing the familiar “My Girl” and the dancers started singing. “Louder!” shouted Jay—and the dancers responded. Then, unannounced, from the driveway at the side of the house, a group of men dressed all in white came running to the stage and joined the singing. Word spread quickly that it was the group The Temptations and everyone went wild! (Jay recently told me, “Not so! The group was Soul Tempo, a vocal ensemble who appeared in the featured film The Preacher’s Wife, starring Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington.”)
We danced to the music and vocals for nearly an hour, and it was nostalgic and wonderful! I danced a few steps with Jamie near the end of a song; and at one point, a young man came and asked me to dance. I don’t know who he was because I can’t see faces clearly, but he was young and a good dancer.
I was in “dance heaven.” I wasn’t sitting on the sidelines, yearning to be part of the action, I was really on the dance floor with other guests and with Summer, Carly’s aging golden retriever who stayed by her side, sometimes lying in the middle of the dance floor. I kept on dancing. During a lively number, someone handed me a long-stem white rose. I placed it between my lips, swung up my arms flamenco style, and tapped my heels to the music. I felt 50 years younger!
Later that evening, Dan asked me to dance once again. This time he took both of my hands in his, looked directly at my face, and guided me through the rhythm of the song, swaying and swinging our arms appropriately. As he departed, he said a few complimentary words, ending with, “I’ll remember dancing with you as long as I live.”
So will I, Dan, for you gave me a precious gift. The mere fact that Dan came back for another dance was beyond measure.
This was Carly’s wedding reception; her night to shine and a night she will recall over and over again. And I’ll do likewise. It was an enchanted evening, where I danced to music with handsome young men as I did many years ago. At my age, this was a night I would more likely have conjured in a dream than experienced in reality. But, as Jay’s old friend, Frank Sinatra, used to sing: “Fairy tales can come true… it can happen to you… if you’re young at heart.”