Want your grandma to recede into a quiet existence? Knit a few sweaters, cook Sunday dinners and spend the rest of her time in a rocking chair? Want her to vanquish her true self — her passions and needs and desires — in order to keep the peace and serve the family?
Then you best not check her on Instagram. Or Tinder. In fact, you should probably find a time warp back to the 1950s. And whatever you do, don’t tell her about the Ms. Senior DC Pageant.
If you do, you might find her on a stage like 69-year-old Margaret Ann Carter, shaking her hips and seductively running her hands up and down her sides to the song “Fever.” You’ll hear a crowd erupt when she turns to present her impressive backside.
You’ll be forced to confront her pulsing humanity, her verve and her, uh, fever.
You may never view her the same way again.
And that, of course, is the point.
The annual pageant has two basic requirements: live in the District of Columbia and be at least 60 years old.
That’s just about the age when society tries to push most American women to the sidelines. The eight ladies competing this year, like all the women who have entered this pageant over the course of its four-decade existence, have a different idea about where they should be. They are demanding the spotlight.
Boxed lunches were served at the pageant’s dress rehearsal last week. So were menopause jokes, health updates and inquiries about grandchildren.
“What’s happening?” one former contestant asked another as they waited for the run-through to begin.
“Everything,” her companion replied. “Just at a different pace.”
“And somebody’s going to end up needing a pacemaker,” chimed in a third woman.
They laughed and laughed. And then kissed the cheeks of each woman who walked – however slowly — into the auditorium of the University of the District of Columbia. Together they make up a large sorority of current and former contestants that’s sprung from the pageant, now in its 38th year.
They are here to visit with each other. To support this year’s competitors. And to make a demand of the general public: Look at us. See us. We are standing here dripping in sparkles, for crying out loud.
“You see her?” they point. She has lymphoma. “And her?” She just got out of the hospital. “And her? Up on stage?” She just had a radical mastectomy. “But just wait till you see her dance.”
They are still here. And they are not interested in your sidelines. Not sidelined by health challenges. Not sidelined by ageism. Not sidelined by your preconceived notions. They refuse.
“We are all queens,” says Earnestine Wiggins, first runner-up in the 2010 pageant, who leans in to press the point. “We were born queens.”
But they know how society feels about them.
“After a certain age they’re saying, ‘Why should I even waste my time? You might die tomorrow,” says contestant Hadiyah Muhammad, 64. “Well, who are you to judge me and say that? Who are you to say that just because my leg is not working, it’s going to stop my life? Because it hasn’t.”
Muhammad – mother of five, grandmother of 16, great-grandmother of 13 — has a trick knee. So she wore bare feet, instead of heels, as she swirled across stage rehearsing the dance she choreographed to Michael Jackson’s “Liberian Girl” for the talent portion of the competition.
There is a reason the movie “Book Club” has resonated with audiences. Like the characters played by Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton and Mary Steenburgen, many women over 60 today are seeking to redefine what it means to be grandmother-aged in America today.
“The way we perceive youth, we want to be eternally young,” explains Muhammad’s competitor, Phyllis Jordan, 62. “That’s what the media tells us — we need to look a certain way, fit into a size eight or whatever. We’re constantly bombarded with that. And we’ve got these expressions – ‘60 is the new 30.’ Honey, 60 is not the new 30. Sixty is still 60 – and it’s okay.”
Jordan’s older sister, Vivian Ledbetter, encouraged her to consider entering the pageant two years ago, after she bought a new house in Ward 7. “I was looking for ways to become more active in my community, and she said that could lead to a lot of opportunities,” Jordan recalls.
Then her sister – her best friend — was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Vivian died in August 2016. Jordan was diagnosed with breast cancer three months later. The pageant fell to the recesses of her mind as she recovered, but it popped back up this spring, just weeks before the deadline to enter.
“I thought, ‘You know what? I’m gonna do that. I am going to run for Ms. Senior DC and see what happens,” recalls Jordan, a contractor at the U.S. State Department who has gray dreadlocks pulled back into a ponytail, loves vintage clothes and wears a hat almost every day. “It would give me an opportunity to have a voice and visibility on things that matter to me.” (Namely, racial justice and support for isolated seniors.)
So, like the seven other women, Jordan attended twice-weekly rehearsals for six weeks and prepared for the four categories on which contestants are judged: evening gown, talent, personal interview and life philosophy.
The ladies, who range in age from 62 to 77, made friends, looked out for one another and ruthlessly sized up the competition.
“These women are scrapping like junkyard dogs,” Jordan said two days before the pageant. “They are not playing. They are in it to win it. They are not there for show.”
“Even with us old folks it’s still catty,” Muhammad agrees. Throughout the rehearsals there was constant speculation about who had the best chance to win. Whoever got the title would get to make appearances at community events throughout the District and compete in the Ms. Senior America pageant in October. “Everybody want’s the same thing,” Muhammad says. “They want that crown.”
“Still,” she adds, “it’s a sisterhood. That’s the way we are.”
You can't rush a beauty pageant. Certainly not one where some contestants walk with a cane. Contestant Ruby Bourn, 66, has had both hips replaced and took a full 10 seconds to shuffle to the microphone, but no one complained.
“Okay, okay,” shouted one of the 600 people in the pageant audience on June 24. “Go Grandma!”
These days we hold an awards ceremony for everys 5-year-old who doesn’t drop out of kindergarten. Grandparents are invited to event after event — soccer games, band concerts, dance recitals — to cheer on their grandchildren. There are almost no occasions where kids get to return the favor. But the pageant is one.
As Hadiyah Muhammad stood onstage waiting for her music to start, one of her granddaughters called out from the audience, “Y’all ready? She ready.”
As Muhammad danced, a little girl yelled, “I love you, Grandma!”
Before the pageant, Phyllis Jordan thought about the message she’d be sending her 22-year-old daughter and other young women by getting on that stage. “Age is just a number,” she said. “You don’t have to be defined by that number. Getting old is wonderful. I don’t feel like I should have to try to fake being 30. I’m 62 and proud of it.”
Jordan felt proud as she sang Nina Simone’s stirring ballad “Four Women.” She felt proud in her azure mermaid gown as she spoke about the importance of clarity in communication. She felt proud walking across stage with her fiance, who happens to be 12 years younger, and when the emcee called her name for Ms. Congeniality.
And she felt proud again when he announced “the new Ms. Senior DC 2018 – Phyllis Jordan!”
As her sash was pinned, a little girl in braids and a flowered skirt ran to be close to the stage. Bathed in light, Jordan paused and waved directly at her.
The next day she logged onto her late sister’s Facebook page and wrote, “We did it, Viv.”
“When you’re young, you need to be the best you can be at that age,” Jordan says. “And should God give you additional years, you need to make the best of what you have.”
Jordan has a new title now and a crown. And a continuing request: See her. See all of them. Older, and, in every way, alive.