By MAGGIE MENDERSKI
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
HANNIBAL, Mo. – Betty Parsons Miller, 79, has played the same gig for 38 years.
Even more seasoned than Miller's drumsticks are the feet dancing to her sound. From behind her drum set, she's seen the power of music and dancing resonate within her dedicated crowd. At the senior dance in Hannibal, the dancers speak the fine languages of waltz and polka.
More than two dozen pairs of loafers, orthopedic shoes and even heels shuffle across the dance floor each Wednesday at noon at the Admiral Coontz Armory at 301 Warren Barrett Drive.
The weekly ritual has inspired companionship, fitness and friendship among seniors throughout the region. The skillful but unsteady movements have forged a community atmosphere for a population that often swings toward loneliness.
"The guys are really good about exchanging partners so that everyone can dance," Miller said. "Most of the women come in alone."
Martha Williams, 94, has built several friendships during her 20 years of dancing at the Armory. As seniors leave the dance floor and transition to nursing homes or death, the group sticks together. At the most recent dance several of the dancers had come from the funeral of a former dancer. Williams remembered the man as an excellent polka dancer and took credit for teaching him to waltz.
Miller eagerly rattled off the names, life stories and ages of some of her favorite regulars. In nearly four decades, she'd seen the movement act as medicine. She noted most of the dancers look significantly younger than their age. Williams said dancing is her favorite way to exercise.
"I think I'll do it as long as my legs will work," Williams said.
Jean Carroz, 85, of Hannibal, shuffled into the senior dance 17 years ago shortly after her husband died. With encouragement from a childhood friend, she took to the dance floor. Often, women dance with women because of a lack of male partners. Eventually, Carroz began taking the initiative just like her friend had done. Newcomers need encouragement, and she never hesitates to offer it.
"I'm friendly to everybody, and I try to make them feel at home," Carroz said.
It took 10 years, but eventually Carroz found her perfect partner. Jerry Thompson's wife had only been deceased a couple weeks when he found an announcement in a local newspaper about the dances. Carroz was the first woman Thompson, 87, asked to dance, and that dance has continued for seven years.
"It's been me and him ever since," Carroz said. "We've had a wonderful relationship."
A couple of dates and a diamond dinner ring later, and the duo became a known couple among the seniors. Miller said their love story is just one of several that she's seen unfold on the dance floor.
"Through the years many of them have met their mate and gotten married," Miller said. "After they start dancing together, they keep coming back and then they come back (each week) together."