Dancing Past 60: ‘I Actually Forget That I Am Aging’


On this dance team at a Queens community center, being a grandma is a plus.

At the Korean Community Services of Metropolitan New York center in Flushing, Queens, men comb through newspapers and sip coffee at long cafeteria tables under fluorescent lights. Normally Swedish pop wouldn’t fit in such a scene, but there it is — the sound of Abba in the distance. Follow it. Behind a partition are women, bedecked in sequins, gliding across a checkered floor to “Dancing Queen.”

This is the KCS Senior Dance Team, a group made up of spry and glamorous women in their 60s, 70s and 80s. They can dance, they can jive and, yes, they are having the time of their lives.

“We use famous music because then everyone knows and it’s easy to feel it,” Kyung Ok Lee, who bashfully referred to herself as the group’s leader, said. “We have some Korean traditional music, American music and K-pop. The music is healing.”

And so is the dancing. Their numbers are heavy on footwork, and the steps, while basic, are knitted together with precision. At first, for the dancer Cha Kyung Yoon, 79, the memorization was demanding. “Thank God for the smartphone,” she said, speaking, like some of the other dancers, with the help of an interpreter. “I practice at my home. While I am dancing, I am very focused. I listen to the music and the lyrics. I also think about my movement: How can I dance beautifully? I actually forget that I am aging.”

The dance team, which began around 30 years ago, rehearses twice a week. Over the past few months, they have been preparing for the organization’s gala on Nov. 8 at Ziegfeld Ballroom in Manhattan. Their performance will feature several numbers including the debut of “Gloria,” set to the 1982 Laura Branigan song.

They start off in two horizontal rows, crossing a foot in front of the other while their arms swoop down from side to side. Their hips twist; cha-cha-cha steps pivot them forward and back. They swim through the air, and later they spin, raising their arms high, and stopping with an emphatic clap. There are no pauses. At the end, they shout, “Gloria!” And then they usually giggle.

Myung Hwa Chung, who is 78 and is usually seen presiding in the front of the dancers in rehearsals — she demonstrates or watches, arms crossed, from the front with elegant posture and an exacting eye — is one of the group’s choreographers. She designed the ruffled costumes for “Gloria,” silver tops and bottoms that make them look like glamorous action figures preparing to embark on a three-month tour of outer space. The pants are essential.

“This woman, Gloria, is deciding what she wants to do when she wants,” she said. “The dance has a bit more action and a bit more strength. Because the movements are so strong, they can’t wear skirts. The clothes and the dance have to match. I wanted to make it modern, as well as very fancy.”

Sometimes, during rehearsals, they incorporate costume changes for different numbers, like layering long, silk fuchsia skirts over their black pants and tops for a lush rendition of “Edelweiss,” swirling the fabric dramatically as they sweep across the floor. They trade the silk for long black transparent skirts with glittering polka-dots in red or silver for “Dancing Queen.” And “New York New York” features a hot pink sash, hats and, of course, a kick line.

But they can take their dancing to a brazen place, too. In one number, set to a Korean pop song, a lyric goes, “So what about my age? It’s the perfect age to love.” They swat the sides of their hips with a twinkle in their eyes.

For “Gloria,” they have decided to incorporate ponytail extensions. Suddenly they look less like grandmothers and more like daughters-in-law.

As a teenager in South Korea, Ms. Chung trained in ballet, even dancing on point but never professionally. Now, she scours YouTube for choreography ideas. She might “see something that our knees can handle,” Ms. Chung said. “I’ll think, that looks good. I listen to the music and I practice on my own. I study gestures and movements a lot. I also have to keep in mind the condition of the dancers, because they are a bit older so they can’t do anything too crazy like spinning around a bunch. Otherwise they’ll get dizzy.”

Of course, age creates physical limitations. But there is artistry in their dancing and musicality, in the way they hang a fraction behind the beat to create the lilting sensation of floating. It’s soulful. By the end of their sessions, which do involve breaks — cookies and coffee are essential for recharging the body — they seem to transform into lighter, younger versions of themselves.

You wouldn’t know that Susan Lee, a graceful wisp of an 84-year-old, has had two knee replacements, wears a pacemaker and is diabetic, which affects the vision in her left eye. Even when walking hurts, she said, “Dancing helps me feel better.”

But she dances for something other than endorphins. “I am very happy when I dance, but I also do it out of a spirit of prayer,” Ms. Lee said. “So even with my knees, I’m thankful that I can still dance. Other people are in walkers. Dancing is giving thanks to God.”

Surfacing is a weekly column that explores the intersection of art and life, produced by Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben and Josephine Sedgwick.

An Rong Xu is a New York-based photographer.

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