Meet the lively senior dance troupe who put on delightful extravaganzas to benefit children in need
Some have great-grandchildren, others remember when gas was only 30 cents a gallon. But they can all still put on a show that draws crowds as young as the Gen-Zers.
For most people Vivian Jeffers’ age, just getting dressed in the morning is a major feat.
But until a recent fall, the 98-year-old danced alongside other real-life golden girls who make up a jaw-dropping cast of professional dancers, including former NFL cheerleaders and Radio City Rockettes from the 1960s.
They call themselves The New Florida Follies, a name that alludes to their elaborate costumes, dance numbers and classic Broadway-stay look, with demanding performances ranging from kick line formations, twists and turns. pinwheel and even lip synchronization.
They are 55+, with Jeffers currently being their oldest member. Although she is one of the few who has not danced professionally, she has been dancing all her life. During the Depression, she worked hard for the 15 cents she received each week, so she could take tap lessons at a dance studio around the corner in West Philadelphia where she grew up.
“I love dancing because it brings joy to both the performer and the audience,” said Jeffers, who is on leave at the moment after suffering a double shin injury but continues to drive, d go to church and take Zumba classes. “Who doesn’t love a good number,” she added.
Dance for a cause
With a long history of quasi-soldouts for their shows at the famous Parker Playhouse in Ft. Lauderdale, Jeffers is right. The group, which also includes former Jackie Gleason Show dancers from the 50s and 70s and retired backing vocalists from Manhattan’s Latin Quarter, is a revamp of the original Florida Follies, created by the new dance legend. Yorker Cathy Dooley in 2001. Since 2015, the silver-haired troupe has been under the direction of Cheryl Steinthal, a former Rockette from New York who has been dancing since the age of 4. The 67-year-old Atlantic City, New Jersey native also danced with Liza Minelli and was a stage director and choreographer for the Miss New York and Jersey pageants.
Continue to Dooley’s Following in his footsteps, Steinthal went on to choreograph the New Florida Follies, a unique celebrity for often-forgotten Golden Age performers. After a year-long hiatus due to the recent pandemic, she has stepped up the group’s annual performances to now put on seven shows a year.
The Leggy Ladies (plus four male members) train three hours a day, twice a week. Besides the physical demands, there are also a myriad of rapid costume changes behind the scenes. The only time their age really seems to show is at height. As Steinthal said, “we have to retake height measurements from time to time…the reality is that people shrink as they get older.”
Despite all their hard work, the dancers don’t take a penny from their ticket sales. They are completely unpaid and operate purely as a non-profit organization with all profits going to various children’s charities. As their slogan says, “we are the older generation taking care of the younger generation.”
One of the groups they help is The Ukulele Kids Club, an organization that donates ukuleles to children hospitalized with cancer and other serious illnesses around the world. The New Florida Follies also donate directly to children’s hospitals like the Children Diagnostic Treatment Center in Ft. Lauderdale and also to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. “It’s the kids,” Jeffers pointed out, that motivates her. “That’s what I love the most, helping children.” She even took dance lessons with her daughter to stay in shape.
It’s show time
Despite being an all-volunteer troupe, their shows are designed with the same kind of detailed fanfare as high-paying gigs.
At one point, six former Rockettes were performing together, including Arlene Acker, who worked in a show with Annette Funicello, a popular teenage star in the 1950s; and Sheila Philips, who once had late-night lasagna with Liberace while on tour in Las Vegas. The Ohio native who began his 14-year stint with the Rockettes in 1966, Philips also makes the eye-catching, heavily scalloped feathered headpieces that the dancers wear in the various skits they put on.
As for their hit shows, they’ve included unforgettables like a full-length rendition of Copacabana, Barry Manilow’s popular 1980s retro musical, and “Million Dollar Baby,” a highly choreographed number at a Charleston speakeasy in the 1920s, involving purse theft.
There were snafu moments too. During an umbrella number for “Opening Day At The Races,” which is based on a scene from the classic musical “My Fair Lady,” one of the dancers lost her giant wig when her umbrella got caught in it, leaving her on stage with just a wig cap.
“It happens to be his first year, his very first year,” Steinthal recalls. “So she just grabbed her wig and ran off the stage.” A few seconds later, she returned after a few simple words of encouragement from the stage manager: “Just put the wig back on your head and go away!” she exclaimed to the frantic dancer.
The New Florida Follies are full of endless surprises. As classic as their routines may be, the senior dancers also kept up with modern times, donning a fantastic Star Wars number dressed in black with golden capes to represent Darth Vader.
With Jeffers pushing 100, the New Florida Follies found a way to showcase the mother of six, grandmother of nine, and great-grandmother of eight, while easing the show’s demands on she.
Until her downfall, Jeffers could be seen in the spotlight playing the tambourine in a number set to the old but cool tune, “Music! Music! Music! (Put another nickel in it). Jeffers, who is deeply religious, called the New Florida Follies the ultimate “sorority” and an experience she never expected to have in her senior years. “Thank God for that,” she said.
The girlfriends that the New Florida Follies clearly are. With a mountain of bragging rights, it’s Jeffers that Steinthal is decidedly bragging about. “She can still take a good step forward,” she said.