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Senior Dance Teams Score With NBA Fans

Pro basketball teams welcome performers age 50-plus and their energetic hip-hop routines

Senior Dance Teams Score With NBA Fans

— AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

Each fall dozens of diehard dancers defy their age. By busting a move, they make a bold statement: We're not too old for hip-hop.

About a dozen National Basketball Association senior dance squads have formed in recent years, proving that showmanship isn't just for the young. They are eager to get back on the court to perform their sassy routines for throngs of fired-up basketball fans.

"The older people admire us, and the younger people adore us," says Vi Hawkins, 70, a Milwaukee Bucks Seniorgee! dancer. She underwent a hip replacement in 2005, a year before the squad's start, followed by a knee replacement in August 2009 — two months before last season's auditions.

That resilience motivated Peggy Harvey, 64, a co-captain, to recover from a knee replacement in September 2009. "I was back to regular dance practice in eight weeks," says Harvey, a sales assistant at a Milwaukee television station. Even her surgeon was amazed. Co-captain Shirley Browne, 69, is used to rapid rebounds. Teammates return "as soon as they can to keep up with the dancing," says Browne, a diabetic with a pacemaker defibrillator. "We're like a family."

For the love of dance

Squad members experience an adrenaline rush from performing at NBA home games, assisted living facilities, intergenerational events and other venues. Some NBA teams pay them for game-day appearances and dress rehearsals, and give free or discounted tickets. But the dancers say it's more about laboring for love than for money.

"Who would think we'd be doing this when we retire?" wonders Freya Sherman, 65, of The Villages, Fla. She and her husband, Gerry, 67, entertain with the Orlando Magic's Silver Stars. Dancing makes the couple feel young again. "Everything I do now is kind of new to me," she adds. "I never danced before I retired."

The Silver Stars made their debut to a standing ovation during the 2005-06 NBA season. Squad members must live in The Villages, a local retirement community, says Jeanine Klem-Thomas, 37, the Magic's dance team's manager. After training the Silver Stars for the past five seasons, she considers them her adopted grandparents. "Senior dancers are like fine wine," she remarks of the 21 returning members who range from 55 to 70 years old. "They only get better with age."

Fighting for a spot

While the Silver Stars don't require dancers from previous years to re-audition, many squads do. "The Golden Oldies must earn their spot on the team" each season, says Janine Thompson, director and choreographer for the Miami Heat. Being a Golden Oldie offers "the opportunity to do something others only dream of doing—learning hip-hop choreography, dancing to the latest musical hits, and performing in front of thousands of fans."

Competition is stiff. Between 50 and 100 participants typically try out for the Chicago Bulls' Swingin' Seniors. Last year, 14 were selected, says director Cathy Core. She and a choreographer decide who makes the cut. They judge how well the dancers retain step sequences and whether they have likeable personalities. "You can't be too serious and want to do this," Core says. Her Swingin' Seniors strut their stuff at home games that draw up to 23,000 basketball fans.

"The crowd is so responsive," notes Jane Bechtol, 63, who eagerly awaits her fourth season with the Phoenix Suns' Golden Grannies. Mastering a new routine keeps her mind sharp, and dancing provides great exercise. Her teammate LaVerna Rodriguez, 82, finds hip-hop to be even more physically challenging than tap dancing. "Just because you're old doesn't mean you have to sit around and do nothing," Rodriguez says.

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