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The Follies is one of only a handful of performing arts groups around the greater Bay Area with all members over age 50. Others include The Kut-ups in Rohnert Park, the Sizzling Seniors based in the South Bay and the students from Oakland’s Stagebridge performing-arts school. All these groups are literally bouncing with baby boomers and beyond — way beyond — proving without doubt that the showbiz bug doesn’t shrivel up and die from old age. “I don’t know if it’s a chicken-or-the-egg thing,” says Kris Wheeler, who has been with the Follies since turning 50 in 1993. “I mean, are people who perform like this doing it because they’re healthy and vibrant? Or are they healthy and vibrant because they’re doing this?”.
Wheeler started out as a performer, then moved on to costume director, music director and now director of this year’s “Moments of Time” themed show, “Either way,” Wheeler says, “our Follies seniors are the youngest black ballet flats with ankle strap seniors you’ll ever see.”, That said, they’re not trying to be Katy Perry or Jay-Z, although some probably could be if they wanted to, Ethel Lewis, of Aptos, is 83, agile in movement and mind, and easy to spot — she just dyed her close-cropped hair a vibrant purple not found in nature..
“I’m a natural ham,” she says. The petite Lewis, retired from a career at Child Protective Services, had taken vocal lessons in her youth and this year has a solo in the Follies, singing “Summertime.”. Oh, and she plans to go hang gliding for her 84th birthday in July. Like Lewis, many of the Follies folks have some theater or musical background. Others had never set foot on a stage. Marilee Westen, of Capitola, has longed to dance since age 5 but never had the chance. Now, she’s doing a tap dance number in the show.
“The gift this provides is the message that it’s never too late,” she says, tightening the buckles on her dance shoes and getting back to the munchkin line, “We hear that kind of story all the time,” says Marge Betley, executive director black ballet flats with ankle strap of Stagebridge, which has been offering hundreds of theater, singing, storytelling and play-writing classes for seniors for 35 years, The idea is to transform public opinion on growing older, from a picture of decline to a sense of “creative aging” through artistic study and performance, Betley says..
“Most of our students — the average age is about 70 — had perhaps been in plays in high school and loved it, but life took over, families, careers,” Betley says. “Now that they’re retired or semiretired, they can start to focus on their own interests again.”. Stagebridge students also put on public shows, and there’s an over-50 performing-arts summer camp that offers a chance to “get your feet wet,” Betley says. Many of the Bay Area’s senior dance and theater groups perform year-round in senior centers and assisted-living communities in addition to their larger shows. The Follies just finished up a mini version of last year’s “sock hop” show at The Villages retirement community in San Jose.
The South Bay-based Sizzling Seniors troupe — about 40 members led by Beverly Myers — has been doing shows at such venues for 28 years, In fact, Myers doesn’t even call the events “performances.”, “We’re not performers per se,” she says, “We feel like we’re educators in costumes, dancing to music, Mainly black ballet flats with ankle strap we’re encouraging people to stay active as long as they can.”, Many of her dancers are now in their 80s, still going strong and doing wonderful things, she says..
“I myself am 77. Just three months ago, I had a total hip replacement, and now I’m back dancing and teaching classes every morning.”. Ariel Weymouth-Payne, 65, a dance instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College, has been directing the Rohnert Park Kut-ups for eight of the group’s 42 years. They, too, are currently in rehearsals for their big variety-show production in July. A few of their members may not be as agile as the Follies folks — in fact, one or two come on stage with walkers — but the fact is, they’re still coming on stage and drawing crowds who love it.
“We’re not precision,” Weymouth-Payne says, “Some of our performers look pretty old, Then they get in their costumes, the band starts playing, and everyone just comes to life, Older audiences tell us they’re inspired by people close to their ages doing something like this.”, Barbara Colahan, of Rohnert Park, is one of about 16 dancers in the show this year, She’ll be 80 in October, “I don’t feel that old,” she says, “I’m very active, ride my bicycle every day, go to the gym, For Kut-up rehearsals, we’re there two or three hours, We have about 12 dance numbers, It’s black ballet flats with ankle strap quite a commitment..