Vivian Lewis was captain of her high school’s cheerleading squad in 1966, but she stopped cheering when she went to college and got married. Three daughters, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren later, she’s back to performing — but now she’s doing scream-making, sweat-dripping, hip-shaking hip-hop — in front of thousands of people.
Lewis, 71, is part of Wizdom, the Washington Wizards’ new dance troupe — with members who are all 50 and older — that was created to whip up fans at Capital One Arena.
It seems to be working.
“The first performance that they did, you would have thought that we won the game,” said Derric Whitfield, Wizdom’s director. “They get a really intense crowd response — people standing up out of their seats, standing ovation.”
Wizdom’s 20 members, ages 50 to 76, sport red and blue jumpsuits and white sneakers as they bring a new choreographed routine for seven of the season’s 40 home games. They dance mostly during timeouts, while the Wizards’ regular dance troupe, the Wizards Dancers, perform at halftime and other breaks during the game.
Whitfield, who selected the Wizdom dancers from a pool of 50 people in a nail-biting process documented on the YouTube series “Road to Wizdom,” produced by AARP, said he’s breaking barriers and stereotypes with the team.
“What I want to prove with this team is, everyone can dance,” Whitfield said to the cameras. “Dance is for people of all ages.”
The Wizards added the 50-and-over dance squad amid a $40 million offseason revamp of their arena and an expansion of their in-game entertainment. At least a dozen other NBA teams, including the Chicago Bulls and the Golden State Warriors, have dance teams for older adults. Whitfield said he had been hoping for a while to create one in the District.
Make no mistake, he said: Wizdom dancers are not second-rate performers. Their moves are precise, and they pop with energy. Whitfield said the dancers relate to fans on a different level than the Wizards Dancers or the Wiz Kids, who are between 6 and 14 years old. Initially, there’s a bit of surprise from the audience that the Wizdom dancers can still shake it, he said, and then there’s plenty of whoops and hollers.
“The fans really get behind them, and it’s an instant support that they get because they’re older,” Whitfield said. “But when they come out and they’re performing these moves and executing them as great as they are, the shock value is another thing, as well, that gets the crowd.”
Like the kids’ team, the Wizdom dancers perform only at select games to make the learning process manageable. The squad first took the court Nov. 24 and has performed twice since. Its most recent performance was Friday, when the Wizards faced off against the Charlotte Hornets. Dancers are paid by the hour, with help from a sponsorship from AARP.
The Wizdom dancers practice for two hours on most Sundays, usually with three rehearsals between each performance. They learn their minute-long routine at the first practice, hone their formation at the second rehearsal and refine the whole dance on the last day.
Whitfield said he mixes older songs with current hits for Wizdom so the dancers can perform to music from their past and show off their newer steps. The group’s first routine included the 1986 funk single “Candy” by Cameo, “Bubblegum” by Jason Derulo and “Tootsee Roll,” released by rap group 69 Boyz in 1994.
While some dancers have retired from their day jobs, others are employed in education, information technology and other fields. One woman used to perform with the Bullettes, the all-female dance team before the Washington Bullets became the Wizards in 1997.
Wizdom dancer Janet West, 58, was a cheerleader for the Washington Redskins when they won the Super Bowl in 1983. She said she heard about Wizdom through the Redskins’ alumni association and found the idea “intoxicatingly exciting.”
“Once you’ve been in that arena and you have the crowd and the audience, it’s really an exciting thought to be back in that forum and have all that excitement around you by performing at 50-something,” said West, who lives in Ellicott City, Md. “It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
West is a professional bodybuilder, bikini competitor and personal trainer, but she said she thinks fans can relate to the fact that most Wizdom dancers look like people they might meet on the street.
“I think that if these were just a team of 40-somethings and we all looked physically fit, it might not be as inspirational to the outside world as seeing people who have survived great challenges in their life and also look like their grandmothers and their great-grandmothers,” West said.
One woman featured in the YouTube series is a breast cancer survivor.
Lewis, the former high school cheerleading captain, decided to audition in September at the urging of her granddaughter, Megan, who said Lewis is always the first one on the dance floor at family events and is famous for dragging out others to cut it up with her.
Megan is a Wizards Dancer who has performed with the squad for five years. She spoke with The Washington Post on the condition that her last name and age not be used to comply with the Wizards’ media policy.
During the audition, Lewis, who lives in Chevy Chase, Md., did an on-camera interview with AARP. She said she was asked how she would feel if she was not chosen.
“I said I don’t think I’d be disappointed because just the fact that I was able to be there,” she said. “Sometimes when you give your all, you either are, or you’re not.”
Lewis and her granddaughter often carpool to games, then perform with their separate groups. They prep themselves together in the locker room of the Wizards Dancers before the rest of the Wizdom dancers arrive at the arena. Sometimes they order smoothies.
Lewis dabs foundation across her forehead while Megan digs blush and eyeliner out of a makeup bag. Lewis applies just a light coat of powder — she says she’s “old-school” about makeup — and curls her brown hair before pulling on her jumpsuit and sneakers.
She puts on her game face, then she strolls down the hallway of the arena to join the 18 other women and one man who make up Wizdom. When they are in formation and the music blasts, they stomp and shimmy to the crowd, making it perfectly clear that rhythm knows no age.
“You want to do your best and look your best,” said Lewis, who also works for a health insurance company. “What woman doesn’t? It doesn’t matter how old you are.”
Lewis said she has stayed active through 20 years of teaching elementary school and eight years in the health insurance industry by pushing her daughters and grandchildren in their strollers, running up and down her basement steps to do laundry and stretching in an exercise chair in her home office. She lives with her husband, daughter and two of her grandchildren, who now come to watch her break it down on a dance squad for the first time.
After performances, Lewis soaks up compliments from fans. But she said bonding with the other dancers has been the best part of being on the squad. The women socialize, and several of them have come to her house to eat and practice their routines between rehearsals.
The other dancers “have their story and their aches and pains just like me, but they can still move it,” Lewis said.
In addition to the camaraderie — not to mention a big stage and a shot of self-esteem — experts say what these older dancers are doing is also great for keeping their brains sharp.
The challenge of coordinating dance moves can actually reverse age-related changes in the brain, said Aga Burzynska, a professor of human development at Colorado State University. In a recent study of adults between 60 and 80 years old, Burzynska found that those who regularly practiced an English folk dance for six months saw improvements in brain structure beyond those who walked for exercise.
Wizdom has been such a success that the Wizards will hold tryouts again this fall for adults 50 and over who think they can make the cut. Like the members of all the Wizards’ dance teams, current Wizdom dancers will have to audition again if they want to perform next season. Lewis plans to try out again, although she said she expects many more dancers will audition now that word of the team has spread.
But no matter, Lewis said. She’s ready, and she’s staying focused on the success of the squad.
“It’s not about me,” she said. “It’s about what you can give and what you can do.”