Ben and Florence Oliver

Ben Oliver, 77, in a playful moment with his wife Florence, 81, in their Leisure World home. (Sun photo by Chiaki Kawajiri / February 15, 2004)

"Start spreading the news," the singer wails.

"I'm leaving today. I want to be a part of it: Leisure World, Leisure World."

A wave of gray and white heads floats past the band. Light bounces off the spangled dresses and sparkling jewelry of women keeping time with partners in sports coats and hair pomade. In the past month, there have been ambulances, funerals, broken bones, heartbreak. But it is Saturday night in spring. The bandleader croons, the couples step forward and back, and the seniors-only community known as Leisure World spins happily in its own orbit.

The room is dark, shadowy, romantic. So, naturally, someone complains.

Ben Oliver is used to this; these are senior citizens, after all. He turns up the surrounding lights and lets a few minutes pass. Then, when no one's looking, he dims the crystal chandelier.

Dark again.

Perfect.

As president of the Ballroom Dance Club, Ben is keeper of the ambience. He is also guardian of dance-floor etiquette, dress code, style. Of course, he knows all the steps; more than two decades of practice in this Silver Spring enclave have made those moves second nature.

But the truth is, the man once known as the Fred Astaire of Leisure World doesn't dance much anymore. These evenings in the Crystal Ballroom offer something else now.

Surrounded by dancers, listening to the music, Ben can forget.

He can forget that he brought his wife, Florence, here in a wheelchair, that his life's work at this stage is to ward off disaster. He can forget his own troubles, too -- the quadruple bypass, the triple bypass before that, the kidney lost to cancer, the hands that shake so violently it's hard to raise a glass without spilling.

Inside this ballroom, he and his wife are not old, not exactly young.

They are every age they've ever been.

So Ben is not 77. His wife is not 81. They are 18 and 36 and 45 and 59.

One glimpse in the mirror can make an old man lose sight of who he once was. But at the dances, Ben can always recognize himself. He can find that part of him that will never change, the basic truth of him that took all his years to understand.

There's a break between rumbas. The voice of Ben's neighbor, Helen McKay, floats from the next table, high and light and delighted as she trills about her new tattoos. Four hours, no anesthesia, and what results! With this permanent makeup, bright blue liner eternally accents her eyes and her inked-on eyebrows are forever flirtatious. She's not as steady with a makeup pencil as she once was, but it's more than that -- all that fixing up just takes too much time. There are tap classes to attend, line-dancing lessons, Thursday dinners with friends.

And two dates a week with her boyfriend, Peter, on whose lap she is now sitting.

Helen is the belle of the senior ball. She can foxtrot and cha-cha the whole night and never once think about the widow's double threat: illness and isolation. She revels in this: She has a partner, and she can still dance. Never mind that she's a widow herself and, at 74, on the cusp of what some gerontologists consider the passage from young old to old old. The numbers are scary for everyone here. Ben already has lived as long as the average American is expected to. And every third person over 65 in this country dies before reaching Florence's age.

But the path into the last stage of life is not hard, like the statistics that define it. Instead, it is winding, one minute trouble and weakness and denial, the next ease and strength and hope.