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The Beat Goes On...

By Jenna Reedy

he entered the Amazon at age 79. “It was muddy as the devil,” laughs Sunshine Dudley, a current retiree. Although she wasn’t on foot wielding a machete, but rather relaxing from her seat aboard a cruise ship, it was an adventure nonetheless. “My husband just loves trips on ships,” quips my playful companion, now 80.

Sunshine (her actual name) ironically hails from Tampa, Florida. She is one of many seniors who now make their home at a retirement community center outside Washington, DC, known as Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads. She details with fervor the buffet of activities the facility offers, including art film screenings, woodworking, watercolor classes, billiards and a multitude of other happenings. She herself often puts together puzzles until the wee hours of the night, and there is even a memoirs class, where a dozen or so individuals get together each week, relating their lives in episodic fashion. The group leader tells me the stories range from recollections of growing up on farms to travel accounts of first-generation immigrants. A history of which will hopefully not be lost.

Although there are a wealth of events from which to choose at Goodwin House, one that stands above the rest, perhaps a unique breed in its own right, is the phenomenon otherwise known as “The Dance.” A dance is typically held each year as part of the New Year’s celebration. Sunshine fondly recalls the year in which a resident in her eighties sang and danced for the musical entertainment, which included sliding into a split. Fortunately, the performer was also a yoga instructor at the time. This year’s format is slightly different, and Sunshine, as the informal mistress of ceremonies, has been chosen to dole out champagne and turn on the ball-dropping ceremony on TV. “If no one comes, I’m going to get drunk,” she teases.

This isn’t the only dance she tells me of though, as there are a whirlwind of others of the “themed” variety. A “Bush-Kerry” dance featured life-sized cut outs of the two politicians as the main attraction and residents could choose to have their photos taken with either party. Then, there was the “Clue” dance. As part of the mysterious merrymaking of Halloween, residents were given a set of clues regarding a murder mystery. They were sent scurrying throughout the lobby and lounge areas in search of answers. Pointed witch hats askew, neighbors and friends collaborated to solve the crime. I am informed that it was Mrs. Indigo, the Executive Director who did it in the Art Center with the fire extinguisher.

Regardless of the theme however, the notion of the dance continues to mystify and entertain as couples take to the floor and music fills the air of “yester year.” Several generations behind Sunshine, I have to inquire of her what that actually means musically, and learn it translates to 40s style, big band and swing. Whatever the song, Sunshine greets them all with dance partner and husband, Remmel, of almost 60 years, a passenger whom she met aboard a flight bound for New York as she worked as an airline stewardess.

Of course, Sunshine has danced through much of her life. She tells me of a time in Russia during a grey November, which led her to the steps of the famous Hermitage Museum. As she and a friend toured the massive facilities, they found themselves on a charming balcony, complete with its own guard, arms crossed, an unforgiving expression wiped across his face. “Let’s dance,” her friend whispered and while he hummed a light melody, they did just that. I can almost see them now, twirling near the gilt frames and czars’ jewels encased in glass. A lovely young American couple sharing the whimsy of life amidst a cold, communist regime. She laughs again at the recollection and concludes, “I went through life with so much fun, it was pathetic.”

As I reflect, sitting in the lobby on a large flowered couch, I hear snippets of conversation about shopping sales and lamb chops on the menu. I note the friendly waves and watch walkers glide by atop neon-colored tennis balls. Big hugs on tip toe are given to departing visitors, from those not as tall as they once were. There is an energy about the place, despite the slower steps and thicker glasses. Perhaps an energy that comes from maneuvering throughout the dance of life, whether triumph or tragedy. Whatever it may be, it explains the glow that exudes from my interviewee, my new friend. A glow as bold and a bright as her name as she marches to the tune of her own very unique beat. A beat that most certainly goes on.

Photos by Tara White. © 2006 Tara White. All rights reserved.

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