Two winters ago, the band I was in played for a fundraiser at a local retirement center, their first “Dance for the Cure” to raise money for Alzheimer’s research. Members of the band arrived early, to set up and do a sound check. We had the usual handful of spectators.
Every senior facility I’ve ever visited has residents who like to sit in the common area, people-watching, hoping for a little entertainment, or at least a distraction. Their need for social interaction gets them out of their rooms and away from the television set. I say good for them. This little bunch watched and kibitzed with the band, as the eight of us lugged in our instruments, music stands, amps, and other paraphernalia.
Staff scurried around, adding finishing touches to their sparkly party decorations, setting out finger food and beverages. By the appointed hour of 6 pm, all was ready.
The band’s repertoire consisted mostly of big-band tunes and a little jazz, like “Killer Joe” by Benny Golson. When we thought we could get away with it—given our older audiences—we threw in a song from the ’60s or ’70s (Santana’s “Evil Ways,” Van Morrison’s “Moondance”). That particular night, we kicked off with Louis Prima’s 1936 swing tune “Sing, Sing, Sing.”
At the sound of live music, people streamed out of their rooms, the men decked out in suits that had probably languished in their closets for years, the women mostly sticking to their comfortable slacks and sweaters and the shiniest baubles and beads their jewelry boxes had to offer.
As always, there were people who took to the dance floor immediately, and those who sat on the sidelines watching, having fun in their own way.
The teenaged children of some of the staff had been brought in as extra dance partners. They approached their assigned task with youthful enthusiasm, working the room, making sure all the residents—including those in wheelchairs—were given the chance to cut a rug.
After an up-tempo start, we slowed things down with “I’ll Remember April” and “Moonlight in Vermont.” But it was when we got to “The Peanut Vendor,” about halfway through the evening, that the party really got going.
“The Peanut Vendor” (in Spanish, “El Manisero”) is a 1930 tune by Cuban musician Moisés Simons. Its strong Latin beat inspired the staff to start a conga line, which grew longer with the addition of able-bodied and not-so-able-bodied residents, having a ball.
When the song ended with a punchy “Cha, Cha, Cha,” they weren’t ready to quit. Someone called out, “Play it again!” So we did. The conga line snaked around the band, passing inches behind me. One woman reached out and touched my arm in a gesture of thanks. I’ve never seen a more bright-eyed, animated group of seniors, as they collapsed in their chairs afterwards. I’m guessing those dancers slept well that night.
Here’s the music that got everyone moving:
Copyright © 2015 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
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