If you flipped through the June 2014 issue of Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine , you might have recognized a familiar face. Perhaps you remember Tao Porchon-Lynch from one of Fred Astaire Dance Studios’ National Dance Competitions, or if you’re a member of the Fred Astaire Dance Studios of Hartsdale NY family, you might even know this amazing woman first-hand!
On a freezing night in November 2005, Tao Porchon-Lynch arrived at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio of Hartsdale NY , where she regularly reserved space to train yoga teachers. As the wind howled, Tao and the studio owner waited in vain for their yoga and dance students make it through the storm. Making conversation, the owner asked Tao if she danced. She told him she was determined to go to Argentina to dance the Tango, to which he replied, “Why not start now?” “So, I did,” Tao smiles widely, “and I have never stopped!” Tao was 87 the night she first danced the Tango.
Somehow, mentioning Tao and age in the same breath feels contrary. Her fitness now, at 96 years, ought to pique the envy of all, and not just because she bends like a reed! Tao’s beauty and youthful essence bubbles up in interviews, shining through her photos and competition videos; making her appear miraculously ageless. This all translates (as Tao would probably have it) into a lesson for us on the opposing principle of yin and yang, meaning that it’s both easy, yet impossible, to overlook Tao’s chronological age. Easy, because of her grace and youthful spirit but impossible because time has made her who she is.
Tao’s Indian mother died in childbirth, and Tao’s uncle raised her in Pondicherry, French India. Early in life, Tao rejected the cultural notion that yoga wasn’t for girls, and she vowed to become as good at it as any boy. Her uncle’s relationship with Mahatma Gandhi, India’s great leader, led Tao into social activism. She marched alongside her friend, Gandhi, in civil protests and later in the U.S., she marched with Dr. Martin Luther King.
In 1939, as the Germans invaded France and World War II spread, Tao left India for France. Helping her aunt aid refugee escapes, she learned of her own need to escape and fled to England. As a nightclub performer there, she became the protégé of Noel Cöward, the English playwright. One night she met Adele Astaire, Tao recalls, “when I was performing at a party for pilots bringing bombers from the USA during the London bombing.” Adele and Tao became friends and at the war’s end when Tao was repatriated to France, Adele came visited her in Paris. By then, Tao had become famous as a model, even winning the “Longest Legs in Europe” contest!
In 1948 and 1949, Tao came to the U.S. to promote Arpege perfume as 1 of only 9 Lever Brothers models. She signed a contract with MGM in 1950, and when Adele found out, Tao remembers, “she asked Fred to look after me” in Hollywood. Tao was in Showboat (1951) when she met Fred Astaire in Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s dining area. She treasures her memories of him as a “delightful, charming man,” as well as his footwork: “The thrill of watching this wonderful dancer was a souvenir I will never forget. The beauty and joy emanating from him was something few dancers will ever achieve.” New Orleans provided the French setting the film needed, and they wanted Tao because she was French. In the end, though, they cut that scene and only Tao is shown, waving. She appeared in Half a Hero (1953) with Red Skelton, as well as other films with the famous comedian. She also appeared in The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), starring Elizabeth Taylor.
Tao has held the title of “Oldest Yoga Instructor” in the Guinness World Records since 2012 (Jack LaLanne was the first to pay her to teach yoga). She is also a wine connoisseur, a founder of the American Wine Foundation, and a respected judge at wine events. In 1982, she founded the Westchester Institute of Yoga in Hartsdale NY, and she still tours the world teaching yoga. Her book about her life will soon be published.
With all this, it’s clear why Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine asked her to appear in a June, 2014 feature named “Age Brilliantly.” Tao participated joyfully, along with 10 other beautiful women “from 17 to 100,” she said, “to prove that great style is ageless.” Beside her image on the page is the number 95, her then-age (she celebrated her 96th on August 13). She is shown settled upon a high white stool in the full lotus position, her gaze communicating her life’s sole ambition: to be fully present in the moment for the benefit of herself and others. Her intensity is softened by a grin reminiscent of a teenager’s. She’s dressed in white slacks with a scarlet leather jacket and 5-inch heels, heels being her preferred footwear. “I had great fun combining a yoga posture with the outfit I was asked to wear!” she said.
Ballroom dancing continues to be Tao’s greatest joy besides yoga. She’s a highly accomplished Smooth dancer, though she gives most of the credit to her Hartsdale teachers who provide up to 5 lessons per week. “I love all Smooth, and I wanted to dance the beauty I saw watching the grace of Alex and Irina” (Vasendin, Hartsdale’s owners). She also loves Latin and Swing dancing “for the fun and energy it stirs up inside, bringing into my body the energy and joy of the dance of life that Vard (Margaryan) and Hayk (Balasanyan) have brought into my life every day.” She notes the help her dance instructors’ “smiles and critiques” have been through the process of learning to “feel the wonderful experience and beauty of dancing.” With each lesson, Tao says, “I walk into the dance studio and feel the excitement and energy that radiates from my dance teachers. They live not only the beauty of dancing, but they live to share it with their students. It makes the sun shine in our hearts and bodies.”
In August 2014, at the Fred Astaire Dance Studios’ Regional NY/NJ Dancesport Challenge, Tao took first place in every entry. She competes often as “a wonderful way of seeing and experiencing the wonder of the life force within us, and to see all the various styles by others to enhance dancing.” She predicts an exciting future for ballroom in the world, due, in part, to its partnership aspects which help remedy the lack of physical contact between people today. “Ballroom dancing is spreading across the universe, bringing people together,” she observes. “Whatever you draw towards another feels the oneness of living.”
Tao is one of the few people on the planet who has achieved and seen so much, yet possesses no trace of cynicism. To meet Tao is to come face-to-face with elegance, gentleness, and a sort of pure wonder- a wonder of nature, particularly, which she respectfully calls her “encyclopedia.” This kinship with the earth helps to explain the extraordinary beauty of her photos shot in the great outdoors. From Nature, the Great Recycler, she learned her firm belief that every living being may reasonably expect to be born anew each day – provided they maintain certain physical and mental conditions. This has worked for Tao because she worked at it, though it’s grown more effortless with time. Today, it’s simply who she is.
Tao’s recipe for a happy life calls for physical and mental health. She warns us that this health will elude us if we continue to be influenced by fear (what she calls “bad medicine”). Ballroom dancing, offers a vital link to this happy life for students who go on to dance away all their fears, beginning with this one: “Just how silly do I look dancing?” “Yoga starts the inner energy flowing,” Tao explains, “opening the eternal breath of life. Dancing unfolds this energy like the petals of a flower. Having a partner makes this energy and wonder come alive.” Breathing – dancing – partnership. The practice of all three has given Tao safe passage beyond what she sees as life’s great pitfalls: procrastination, projection, and negativity. “One minute after midnight, it is already today,” Tao gently reminds us. “Don’t dwell on the past or future, awaken to the dawn…draw it to you and feel it open the dance of life.”
This story was reprinted from the Autumn 2014 issue of inSTEP Magazine, Fred Astaire Dance Studios’ quarterly student publication. For more info on FADS’ inSTEP Magazine, visit our Facebook page.