They are an unlikely-looking dance troupe. One is in a wheelchair, another has a limp, all perform in street clothes and the youngest is nearly 60.
Yet the seven senior citizens -- or "Dancers of the Third Age" -- continually delight audiences, whereever they perform. Since their founding in 1976 they have danced for hundreds of school children and other seniors, and last spring traveled to Boston to dance for the city's Elder Arts program.
"We've convinced audiences that it's possible for people of all ages to dance and make art," says troupe leader Liz Lerman, the 32-year-old artistic director of Northwest Washington's Dance Exchange, which offers classes for all levels, from beginner to professional.
"When you see them perform, you are forced out of thinking of dance as belonging to the young and beautiful and well-trained. They really communicate to an audience about life, using dance as their vehicle, which gives dance a much fuller meaning than we've come to expect in our culture.
The "Third Age" dance troupe grew out of a weekly dance class Lerman teaches at The Roosevelt for Senior Citizens on Sixteenth Street. Each Thursday, she and a handful of young dancers encourage the seniors to stretch their bodies and their minds through dance.
"I really feel that people are at their best when they're dancing," says Lerman, who got the idea for a senior dance class in 1975 when she needed elderly dancers for a piece she was choreographing. "And when they get moving, these folks are just incredible."
Some of her students come in wheelchairs, on walkers and with canes. Some hold each other for support, and some walk unaided -- slowly and deliberately -- in their sneakers and orthopedic shoes.
Most participants remain seated throughout much of the class, moving their hands, arms legs and shoulders to music. The more spry members create improvisations and dance "sculptures," but each student is encouraged to do what he or she can, even if it's just lifting a foot or raising an arm.
"Dancing has really kept me going these last few years," admits 86-year-old Harry Belanger, one of the troupe's star dancers. "No matter how big the crowd or how small, I like to get up there and do my darndest."
Considered by some members to be "the spirit of the troupe," Belanger danced the leading role of the elevator operator in Lerman's Elevator Operators and other Strangers" and portrayed other diverse roles, including a cheerleader in "Who's on First."
"Harry never fails to bring down the house when he hits the floor to do pushups," Lerman says. "The group wouldn't have been the same without him."
Belanger's recent decision to move to California to be near his daughter was difficult both for him and for the troupe, admitted some of the nearly 100 Roosevelt residents who attended a special dance class-performance in honor of his final appearance with the group.
"It's a sweet and sour thing," Belanger mused. "I'll be seeing old friends and doing a lot of fishing, but I'm leaving behind a lot of good friends and the dance group. I'm going to miss the good times we've had.
"I never in my wildest dreams imagined I'd be dancing like this. I used to do some ballroom dancing, but I never even heard of modern dance. Of course I've exercised every day of my life and that helps.
"But now I've got rid of all my butterflies and can get on stage and not be bothered by an audience. I think we've helped break down sterotypes about old people and what dance is."
Belanger, a retired accountant who entered the time and date of each dance meeting into a special ledger, conceded that the troupe's rehearsal and performance schedule was demanding. "I had 178 dance-related appointments in 1978. In Boston we had six performances and three rehearsals in six days.
"But I feel sometimes as if I have a little talent, and it feels good to know I can get up in front of people and do something like this. And if I get a good heavy hand of applause, well, I'm human. It feels very good."
"Harry is a perfectionist and a very good performer. He really puts his whole self into everything he does," said Thelma Tulane, 82. The dance troupe, she said, changed her life by helping her out of a depression following the death of her husband.
Wheelchair-bound dancer Mary Mylecraine summed up the group's feeling about Belanger with this special tribute at the end of the performance:
"At an age where some people are content to sit in a rocking chair, Harry is always going and giving. He's helped us show that no matter how old you are or what shape you're in, there's always something you can do."