Mary walks through falling snow, up the sidewalk and through the front door of the Fred Astaire Dance Studios’ Corporate Office in Longmeadow, MA. She is 88 years old and other than her Dance Instructor’s careful palm on her elbow, she is unassisted. Mary is visiting Corporate today, eager to see Jack Rothweiler (Fred Astaire Dance Studios’ now former President & CEO), who had enrolled her in her very first dancing lesson program twenty-something years ago. Later, they’ll have a slice of the celebratory cake he brought for the occasion. She smiles the whole time, her eyes full of spirit. She moves, and looks, at least 15 years younger than she is. And she gives much of the credit to her dancing lessons at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio of West Hartford, CT.
“My non-dancing friends think I’m crazy,” she admits, settling into a chair, “and I do have aches and pains, even sitting down. But when I’m dancing, they’re unimportant. I don’t fight them, I work with them. I just dance, and after a while, I don’t feel pain anymore. My nickname at the studio is ‘Mary Sunshine’, because I’m usually smiling while I’m there. I especially like Showcases. Clemens and I have done 22 together!” She has also competed in 10 FADS National dance competition events. Clemens Lengenfelder, FADS West Hartford studio co-owner with his wife, Jessica, has been Mary’s teacher for 16 years. He drove her here today—and such attentiveness isn’t rare in the Fred Astaire Dance Studios organization. Mary views Clemens like another son. She raised five kids without much help, and there were tough times. Some, like the loss of one son, as well as her darling grand-daughter at age 13, are just too tough to re-visit.
“I find joy in ballroom dancing,” Mary says, “water-color painting and nature. They feed my inner spirit. I need my family and friends, many of whom I found at the Fred Astaire Dance studio, too, and I’m basically happy. Clemens is patient, understanding and kind. I love to entertain people with dance, using all types of music from Hip Hop to Classical: a great challenge and great fun! I look at everything I do as a challenge.” She leans closer: “When I like something, I like it a lot! No half measures! If you have problems bugging you–for one hour of dancing, you put those problems out of your mind and do something you really love!”
She joined the studio “after my first guest lesson, a gift from her daughter, Ellen. I decided I wanted to learn Cuban Walks. I figured five lessons were enough–I was fully planning to quit after five! Well, 45 minutes (the time spent with Jack enrolling in her Beginner’s program) have lasted 20 years!” Mary’s favorite dances are Samba, West Coast Swing, and Rumba (in that order). “She loves expressing herself to music, moving with a partner with that great physical contact,” Clemens adds. “It makes you think younger—dress up, do your hair! And I teach all my students the same basic way. While of course we accommodate physical limits, we don’t believe in ‘old ladies.’ I mean, we might do one spin less. But just because you need to take it a bit slower doesn’t mean we’re not going to do it all!”
“My doctor tells me, ‘Mary, for all that’s wrong with you, you’re in great shape!’” she chuckles. “Dealing with tough stuff…that’s a reason I continue. I go to the gym, too, but I don’t enjoy it like dancing. It takes time to get comfortable with dancing, so you can move to the music. Then you fall in love with dancing.” Clemens interjects: “She’s so creative. I admire creative people.” Mary pats his arm, grinning at him. “He lets me be creative,” she says. “My family comes to my performances, my kids and grand kids. They see what I’m doing and say ‘Wow! This is my mother – my grandmother?? WOW!” She thinks for a moment about how she feels when she’s dancing. A step removed, somehow. Painless, free. Mary has yet to figure out its full power: “I still don’t know,” she muses, “but I think dancing does key into something very deep within me.”
This story was reprinted from the Spring 2015 issue of inSTEP Magazine, Fred Astaire Dance Studios’ quarterly student publication. For more info on FADS’ inSTEP Magazine, visit our Facebook page.