At age 8, Mahal Maria May started dance class and quickly made it as much a part of her education as the ABCs.
She concentrated on Hawaiian routines and has spent decades mastering the nuances of the dance forever associated with America's island state. She often performs in traditional grass skirt before an audience or at a family luau.
"I love the hula," said May, whose first name translates to "love" in her native Filipino. "It tells a lovely story in a feminine way."
Now, at 65, she is the reigning Ms. Maryland Senior America and is practicing her signature dance for the national pageant in October in Atlantic City, N.J.
May, a retired education consultant for the federal government and a Davidsonville resident, is used to performing as a member of the South County Showstoppers, a traveling troupe of seniors. The Showstoppers — dancers, singers, musicians and a few stand-up comedians — perform frequently changing routines for free on an ever-widening circuit.
Her friends at the troupe's home base, the South County Senior Center in Edgewater, have come to appreciate May's appearances on stage and in their dance classes.
"I heard she was going to dance for us and I came to watch," Diane Humphries of Arnold said of May's performance at a recent fundraiser at the center. "The dance is beautiful."
Fellow Showstopper Annie Owen said, "I love watching her dance. She is so graceful. Even if she doesn't win the title, she will still be a winner."
Mary Clemmons, who is taking a belly-dancing class with May, marveled at her grace. "Mahal is so smooth and elegant," she said. "I feel clumsy just watching her."
The troupe claims many all-stars, including Joyce Reilly Clautice, the 1999 Ms. Senior America; Mei Yu Green, the 2009 Ms. Maryland Senior America; and Jean Milazzo, the state's 2011 title holder.
Senior America Inc., a New Jersey-based nonprofit, organized the first contest in 1972 "to raise awareness of the continuing social contributions" of women 60 and older and "to enrich the lives of seniors and tap their energy to enrich the lives of others," according to the organization's website. The pageants focus on the role of America's most vital natural resource, its seniors, organizers said.
"I see the pageant as a way to highlight senior women as role models," said May, who constantly reminds fellow seniors that 60-plus can be the best time of their lives.
"Reach for youth of the heart and you'll begin to see that the sparkle in your heart and the twinkle in your eyes make you beautiful in a way not achievable in youth" is her philosophy, she said.
The wife of a retired Air Force officer and the mother of four, May plans to rehearse her routine until the October finals. Her greatest fan and gentlest critic is her husband, John, she said.
"He is my producer, editor and chauffeur," she said. "When I am nervous, he is my support."
Her children will cheer her on, but the three daughters and a son will not continue the Hawaiian dance tradition.
"I taught them all to dance to 'Tiny Bubbles' when they were little because it's easy and repetitive," she said. "But they are just not into it."
She has made a few appearances in her tiara and sash, won at the Maryland pageant this spring, and after watching previous national competitions, she said she knows what to expect.
She has submitted her biography, detailing numerous volunteer efforts; written her speech on her philosophy of life; and chosen a lilting melody titled "Lovely Hula Hands" because, she said, the nearly three-minute song delivers its message through flowing hand movements.
"The song tells the story of a beautiful girl," she said. "Its message to the audience is all in the hands."
She has also put together her costume, a pale-yellow gown accented with flowers. She will wear the traditional lei, this time with bright yellow flowers, and a pearl-seeded holoku, or Hawaiian wedding gown. She will pin her dark hair back with a large silk hibiscus. A ring of the same bloom encircles the hem of the floor-length gown. She dances barefoot.
But the next few months are not all about pageant preparation. May will continue with her many volunteer tasks.
"I love retirement," she said. "It means I can be everywhere."
Her signature project is Bountiful Backpacks, which, in partnership with the Rotary Club, sends about 60 needy children at two elementary schools home every weekend with nonperishable foods. Once a month, she and fellow Rotarians prepare and deliver 125 bag lunches to a homeless shelter in Annapolis. She also tutors schoolchildren and adults in English.
"Volunteerism is the best way to give back to your community," she said.
Winning the national crown does not come with piles of prizes.
"It's about honor, prestige and serving your community," she said.