At Catonsville High's 'senior citizen prom,' seniors take the dance floor

Esther Fisher did not go to her prom when she was a senior at Catonsville High School in 1934. She couldn’t afford it.

Eighty-four years later, Fisher, now 100 years old, was back at Catonsville High for Senior Citizen Prom, swaying to big band music on the dance floor.

“It’s very nice, them going to all this trouble for seniors,” Fisher said.

The annual student-run prom, which has been around for at least 20 years, is hosted by the school’s Student Government Association and Chick-fil-A Leader Academy. Summer Miller, the teacher adviser for both programs, said the free event is a “service project for the community.”

“They like doing something for seniors,” Miller said. The volunteers, who helped raise funds, advertise and decorate the space, included about 20 SGA students and 50 members of the Chick-fil-A Leader Academy, a high school leadership program sponsored by the fast-food company.

The event cost SGA about $2,000 for the band, decorations and a portion of the food, with the rest of the food donated by Chick-fil-A, Miller said.

“It’s wonderful, with a capital ‘W,’” said Barbara Susie, a resident of Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville. “Thank you to those young students, they’re so gracious. Their mother would be so proud of them.”

Rida Younis, 18, said she was enjoying volunteering with the senior citizens, “giving them an outlet to feel like teenagers again.”

“It’s just so cute to see senior citizens having a great time,” she said. “They get so happy about the little things.”

Younis said the students have been preparing for the prom for about two months. At the event, she was helping with serving food.

“It’s always a nice affair,” said Mary Breland, 72, who has attended every year for the past three years with her friends from the Catonsville Senior Center. “We look forward to it.”

The March 24 afternoon event, attended by about 50 seniors and a group of high school volunteers, was held in the high school cafeteria. Chick-fil-A catered the event, serving chicken nuggets, salad and muffins sliced in half and placed on individual plates. A large dispenser held decaffeinated coffee.

Ain’t Misbehavin,’ a band of 20 Baltimore County musicians that practices at Pickersgill Retirement Community in Towson, played big band classics from the 1920s through the 1950s. Brenda Blackwell, of Perry Hall, the band’s lead singer, said this is her second year at the prom.

A former teacher and guidance counselor, Blackwell said the fact that the event is hosted by students “means the world to me.”

“It gives me goose bumps, playing in front of such a fantastic group,” Blackwell said.

Some seniors practiced moves learned in line dancing classes at Charlestown and the Catonsville Senior Center, teaching the high school volunteers the steps. Others twirled with partners across the dance floor, fur wraps and purple skirts flying.

When the band took a break, a gaggle of high schoolers took the stage, plugging a smartphone into the speaker system to play the Cha Cha Slide and walking the senior citizens through the moves.

Judy Watson, 77, named prom queen after a card with her name was picked from a box, said her new title — which came with a tiara and sash — was “embarrassing.” Still, she said, she was enjoying the opportunity to dance.

Leigh Appel, communications director at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Erickson School, which teaches aging services management, said that events like the prom can have both physical and social benefits for older adults.

“Anytime you can get them engaged socially and moving physically is a benefit,” Appel said.

Physical activity like dancing can help seniors with balance and coordination, and social interaction is particularly important for seniors who live at home alone, she said.

Fisher, a Charlestown resident, said she was a dancer when she was younger, until she fractured her kneecap. At 100, she said, it is easiest to dance when she has a partner to lean on; Fisher spent time early in the afternoon dancing with Rob Hunter, a Charlestown program manager.

The centenarian, who walked to the old Catonsville High School building from Arbutus as a teenager, attributed her longevity to an active life in high school, Fisher said she was on the varsity teams for basketball, volleyball and fieldball, something of a cross between basketball and soccer.

“Exercise, that’s the important thing,” Fisher said. “It’s good for the body and soul.”

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