Girls Again
Tapping away the doldrums of aging
By Sally Friedman

On a typical afternoon, a group of spry seniors is applying makeup and costumes, getting ready to take the stage and work their magic.

The audience is usually quiet. Some may be in wheelchairs. Others are close to their walkers. There’s some conversation, and a few are on the verge of nodding off.

Minutes later, the women of Girls Again Productions burst onto the scene, clapping to music that is beloved and familiar. Ladies who are well into their Social Security years are tap dancing vigorously and joyfully. Their steps are intricate, with patterns that are clearly well-practiced.

Performers Sue Kruse, Elaine Faunce, Dotty Citeroni, Joan Downing, Lorraine Stepanavage and Eileen Knauss

Performers Sue Kruse, Elaine Faunce, Dotty Citeroni, Joan Downing, Lorraine Stepanavage and Eileen Knauss

Wherever Girls Again turns up, the scenario is the same. There is always a noticeable “before” and “after” of audience members. Once the show gets going, they become alert, connecting with the performers and each other.

These women who have crossed the line into their seventh decade, and then some, execute dances that test their joints – savvy steps with fast turns, aerobic movements and stretching limbs. Despite what audience members might think, many of the women in the troupe weren’t always the dancing type.

“I was a horrible dancer. I had two left feet. My poor sister used to try to teach me, but I just never got it.” That’s what Mavis Dolbow insists. But there she is, strutting her stuff at every Girls Again gig, and clearly loving it.

The dramatic turnabout came when she was introduced to line dancing some 20 years ago.

“Palmyra has line dancing for people 50-plus at the high school, and I couldn’t wait to be 50 to enroll,” says Dolbow. “I loved having detailed instructions that I could follow, and I liked the idea that you didn’t need a partner to dance,” says this high-energy 72-year-old.

It was through line dancing that Dolbow met Jessie Paul, one of the founding members of Girls Again, which was launched in 1997 by a handful of women who loved to dance. The name derived from a feeling they all experienced: dancing made them feel like girls again.

Paul invited Dolbow to join the group, and she’s never looked back. The timing was fortunate: Dolbow had lost her husband the year before and was looking for a diversion.

“I knew I couldn’t just sit around, and I’ve found that dancing is the best form of exercise for me. It’s fun, of course, but it’s also invigorating. I’ve never felt better.”

And those two left feet? “Oh, that’s history.”

History is one of the cornerstones of this unusual dance troupe. While some members are reluctant to give their ages, there are no kids in the group.

Their memories are also the collective memories of other seniors, and seniors are the troupe’s most regular audiences. They tap into the music of the last century, especially the years between the 1930s and 1970s.

No matter how weary or even passive some residents of senior communities may seem, the sounds of familiar music ignite smiles and joyful responses. Specialty acts by some of the 18 members feature the voices and styles of former legends of song and dance like Liza Minnelli, Carol Channing and Shirley Temple. But the Girls Again women know there’s more to this than just entertainment.

Anita Courtney as Shirley Temple

Anita Courtney as Shirley Temple

Toward the middle of many shows, which usually differ in content and pacing, Shirley Temple bursts out in a frothy dress and blonde curls. It’s Girls Again’s resident Brit, the winsome Anita Courtney, aka Shirley Temple.

Lip-synching to “The Good Ship Lollipop,” Courtney never fails to bring the house down as she mingles with the audience and delivers the classic song with verve and fancy footwork. But Courtney, who could fool anyone about this, insists she was not a natural-born dancer.

“I was OK, definitely not great,” says the spirited widow who once worked as an administrator at a pen company. “I was told I could cheer people up, and I guess I’ve found another way to do that.

“Retirement did not agree with me,” adds Courtney, who remembers asking her daughter during her first retirement days, “So what should I do now?” “Go make the bed,” her daughter advised her, but mom was back on the phone in a few minutes asking “So what now?”

“I knew I really needed something to do, so I started to take line dancing lessons. It changed my life.”

When she met several women from Girls Again Productions and they invited her to audition, she did. That was back in 2000. She’s never looked back and now handles the bookings and public relations for the troupe, leaving her little time to worry about what to do next.

“I absolutely love performing,” Courtney says. “But it’s so much more than an ego thing. When I do Shirley and women in nursing homes are suddenly smiling and trying to dance with me, it feels as if I’ve found what I was meant to do.”

For Joan Downing, current director and go-to gal of Girls Again, the passion for dance runs deep.

“I really wanted to be a professional dancer,” says Downing, who grew up in a very strict Italian family. “But that wasn’t going to happen. I was supposed to graduate from high school, get a job and get married and have babies.”

Dowling did just that, having three children in two-and-a-half years. Dance was definitely on a back burner.

Life was hectic and through the years she got involved in family and civic life. Line dancing was what got Downing back to dance, a common thread among the women. And it was what propelled her into Girls Again.

Since her arrival in 2005, Downing has also plunged into other aspects of the group, from designing and sewing the costumes to creating programs for audiences all over the Delaware Valley. The group has performed at veterans’ homes, retirement villages, country clubs and, in short, “anywhere we’re invited,” quips Downing.

The standard fee for the performance is $125.

“My husband and my kids are supportive – they know how much this means to me,” says Downing, the organizing force among the women. “I guess I learned from my own mother, who was super-organized, that you have to be prepared for anything.”

So it’s Downing who carries the extra accessories like hats and bow ties that keep the look of the show both sassy and unified.

“In that way, I guess I’m the mommy figure,” Downing says.

For another founder of the group, Lorraine Stepanavage, dancing takes her back to when she was a kid begging her friends to put on a show. “I never took a dance lesson, but I could always feel the music.”

A widow for the past five years, Stepanavage, a former secretary to a group of physical therapists, now does a wicked “Mame” number in many of the shows. She’s vampy and funny, and audiences love her.

Among her most devoted fans: her 20-year-old granddaughter Lauren, now a college student, who used to go to rehearsals with Grandma. “I think Lauren was a little surprised at first that her grandmother could get up there and do what she does. Then I think she just felt very proud. It’s not Broadway, but it touches a lot of people.”

It takes a very special talent to play to an audience in which some members may be snoozing and some may be clutching dolls, clearly lost in their own confusion. It also takes a giving spirit.

That’s what seems to motivate the only male in the group.

Bill Montufar of Maple Shade seems custom-made to be an emcee with a keen sense of timing and a gift for humor. When the former male emcee of the group passed away, Montufar, whose wife Tina is in the troupe, was asked to take over. He didn’t hesitate.

“My friends will tell you I love to tell jokes, and I don’t mind being at a microphone,” he says.

His innate skill for making people feel at home – and making them laugh – comes through loud and clear when he hosts a show. From teasing the women about how he washes and irons their costumes to ad-libbing his way through audience interchanges, Montufar is a pivotal member of the company.

“I tell audiences that all the cast members weighed 300 pounds before they started dancing, and that always gets a laugh. But I totally stay away from any remarks about sex or religion. We don’t need that.”

Aside from being the guy who always finds the ideal spot to plug in the microphone and sound equipment, this 83-year-old is essential to the show’s impact.

Bill’s wife of 63 years, dancer Tina, loves her husband’s high jinks, but also has some serious thoughts about why she does what she does.

“I’m a retired registered nurse who always loved to dance. I know that staying active in older years is really important,” she says, “and my doctor is delighted about what I’m doing.”

Along with maintaining her body’s flexibility and strength, this high-stepping chorus member recognizes that her participation in Girls Again has another benefit. By learning and memorizing the dance moves and routines – and there are plenty of them – Tina believes she’s significantly helping her memory.

“So if I can have this much fun and still get some health benefits,” she says, “I’m sticking to it. I figure my bones and my brain will thank me.”

May 2014
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