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Arundel senior citizens wow peers with song and dance

Decked out in her most patriotic costume, Flo Keeny arrived ready to wow the audience at an Annapolis retirement home with her part in the South County Showstoppers revue. With less than 30 minutes until curtain time, a change in the lineup had this 77-year-old hoofer dashing for home to retrieve another costume.

Her act suddenly shifted from Broadway's "Yankee Doodle Dandy" to a graceful hula and sweet song reflecting on a little grass shack in Hawaii. Instead of tapping across the stage in red, white and blue, she swiveled smoothly in traditional island garb. When she sashayed through the audience, David Wray, 85, grabbed her arm ever so gently, asking her to hula a little more. She promised she would return for another number.

"We do whatever we can, even if it means running home to get the hula skirt," she said. "I don't mind. I love to do all kinds of dance."

The troupe performed Tuesday at Somerford Place, an assisted-living center that is home to about 50 residents coping with Alzheimer's disease and dementia. It is one of many stops the 40 performers, who are mostly retirees, will make this year.

Showstoppers formed about four years ago with a small group of people who wanted to share their talents, said director Joanne DeWilde.

"We are people with talent to share," she said. "We just took that talent to another level and started Showstoppers."

They started rehearsing and initially toured Anne Arundel's senior centers. They still practice weekly at the South County center, their home base, but they have spread their wings considerably. They have grown into a roving band of dancers, singers, musicians and a few stand-up comedians who travel an ever-widening area and put on their frequently changing shows for free. They have played in Southern Maryland, the Eastern Shore as well as Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

"If you have them once, you will have them back," said Anita Campbell, executive director of Somerford's Annapolis location.

Their summertime review opened with a rousing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," a number the audience easily recalled. Many sang along. John Carroll, 92, said he remembered the music and really liked the show, particularly when the troupe's Annie Owen danced with him.

"Music is the best thing for our residents," said Gayle Papa, Somerford's activities coordinator. "Everyone here is dealing with Alzheimer's or dementia, but they can understand and participate in these songs. I think the music really does something to the strings of their hearts. It is also so good for our residents to see other active older people doing so many things."

The Showstoppers, who range in age from 60 to 90 — yes, 90 —are well-rehearsed, enthusiastic and energetic. They all share a commitment to community.

"God gave me talent, and I need to share it," said Heidi Kammer, 62 and retired after 23 years in the U.S. Navy Band. She strummed her guitar and crooned a calypso tune the audience quickly recognized. "It makes it even sweeter to bring our show to those who can't get out."

The Showstoppers' popularity is growing, with bookings well into next year; and they won this year's Governor's Award for performing arts in the Department of Aging.

"We are all seniors and still going strong," said DeWilde, the 62-year-old director, frequent emcee and belly- dancing instructor. "Our idea is to go out and bring joy to people's lives. We aspire to inspire before we expire — that's our motto."

Many in the group are born performers, seasoned in song and dance. Barbara Woods, 74, dropped her cane when she walked to the stage to sing "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" in dulcet tones. The residents quickly joined in.

"I like to sing, and I like others to sing with me," Woods said. "I chose the perfect song for this group."

Others have blossomed into Showstoppers under the tutelage of their fellow performers, DeWilde said. Shirley Williams, 74, waited calmly for her singing debut with the group. Karaoke helped prepare her, she said.

"It is a great thing to entertain for folks who like to be entertained," Williams said.

DeWilde insisted on bringing belly dancing into the revue when she took over the troupe two years ago. Now six of her students are featured as the truly uninhibited Sultry Sirens in the shows, and several others are considering lessons.

"Most of us say that Showstoppers has changed our lives," she said. "We are like another family to each other. We all have our own baggage, but these shows help us forget all about our cares."

The troupe claims many all-stars, including Joyce Reilly Clautice, the 1999 Miss Senior America, and Mei Yu Green, the 2009 Miss Maryland Senior America. The 2011 state title hopeful, Jean Milazzo, has her sights set on the October pageant.

"Some Showstoppers are going with me," Milazzo said. "The camaraderie here is just wonderful. We all have the same goals of rewarding the audience."

Milazzo, who never reveals her age, led the Sultry Sirens in a belly dance routine showing off the latest twists learned in DeWilde's classes.

The Silver Liners, a quartet of three gals and one guy, synchronized line dancing to several familiar tunes. Carl Smith, 69, said he never minds playing second fiddle to three women.

"Who wouldn't like being around all these talented women?" he said.

The line dancers had the audience moving in the seats, foot stomping to the beat and joining loudly in the "so good" chorus of "Sweet Caroline."

"I love the line dancing movements," said Mary Crothers, 74. "The music livens up any room and I don't have to have a partner to dance to it."

Fellow line dancer Shirley Avery, 75, said the steps keep her active physically and mentally. "It's a lot to remember," she said.

Then, the Sole Sistahs, in sleek black accessorized with hot pink, added a bit of funk to the production. Clautice, all in white lace and veils, impressed everyone with her modern ballet interpretation of "Pretty Woman."

"We are all pretty women here today," she said.

The finale medley of familiar favorites drew a few out of their seats. Melvin Metzger said he could not quite recall his exact age, but he easily remembered the lyrics to "Under the Boardwalk" as he danced a jitterbug with DeWilde. He managed to dip and twirl his partner a few times, too.

"I always liked to dance and have fun," Metzger said.

Gene Way, 79, said the performers get just as much from the show as they give audiences.

"It's really a two-way street," said Way, who played two piano solos and sang with an ensemble billed as Harmony Grits. "We are doing something for the community and having a really good time doing it."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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