One woman stands, then squats, moving up and down, up and down, as she describes her 9-month-old grandbabies learning to walk.
Another woman squawks what sounds like the word “Wow” before appearing to fly gracefully out of view.
Carolyn. Peg. Sue. Roberta. Mary Lou.
Havlik calls on each, and just when she thinks she’s given everyone a turn, someone reminds her that she forgot Gloria.
“Gloria?” Havlik asks. “Where’s Gloria?”
“She’s right behind me,” someone says.
“She’s right next to me,” someone else offers.
“Oh, there’s Gloria,” Havlik says. “She’s in my corner.”
Gloria is actually nowhere near any of them. She is sitting alone in the dining area of an assisted-living center, wearing a disposable mask. Her image appears in different places on each person’s screen, but not everyone on the call may know that. The members of Quicksilver, a Washington-area improvisational senior dance company, are still getting used to virtual rehearsals.
Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the senior dance team would gather in person at assisted-living facilities, nursing homes and adult day-care centers across the D.C. region. Partnering with live musicians through the nonprofit group Arts for the Aging, the dance team would guide participants, many their same ages, through different moves they could do from their seats and wheelchairs.
The dance team’s members describe those encounters as powerful for both them and the participants, who might not have many opportunities to interact with people outside of the facilities where they live. They tell of forging connections through a touch of a hand and witnessing a nostalgia-inducing song turn a stoic expression into a smile.
“ ‘Down by the Boardwalk’ — you play that song, and people remember,” says Havlik, who is 79 and the director of the dance company. “That’s the song that gets people going in 2020.”
But then the novel coronavirus stopped all that. It caused adult day-care centers to shut down and forced assisted-living facilities and nursing homes to keep out visitors. That meant the people and activities that gave residents some joy had to stay away, while grief wrapped itself around them. One of the nursing homes in Maryland where the dance team used to hold sessions suffered 13 deaths from the virus, Havlik says.
The Quicksilver dancers also had to stop meeting in person because many of the members are in their 70s and 80s, making them also vulnerable to the virus.
“I couldn’t process it,” Havlik says of the moment it hit her that she couldn’t resume the active life she had created. “I was probably depressed. I was numb. Everyone was numb.”
Quicksilver dancer Dorothy Levy, who is 86 and lives in Northwest Washington, is divorced and has four daughters who don’t live in the area. Because of the pandemic, she now spends most of her days alone, only seeing people from a safe distance when she takes walks through her neighborhood. She says she misses seeing the other dancers in person and working alongside them in the community.
“As you get older, there is a tendency for people to write you off, to tell you to go out to pasture and chew on whatever, you’re no longer useful,” she says. “And that was one way for us to see and realize that we can make a difference in people’s lives.”
The toll of the coronavirus is often measured by the deaths it has directly caused. That growing number has become shorthand for our communal grief. But the virus also steals in indirect ways. In a recent article, my colleague William Wan wrote about how people with dementia are dying from the isolation intended to protect them.
“Activities that used to stimulate their minds — music therapy, game nights, Jazzercise — have ground to a halt,” he writes. “At most facilities, residents aren’t even able to eat lunch together anymore.”
The article continues: “One woman in D.C. — who has not seen her children, grandchildren or siblings since March — described the horror of witnessing her mind deteriorate in isolation. ‘I not talking with the whole sentence anymore,’ she wrote in a series of text messages about her decline. ‘Not got balance. Painful cramping.’ ”
These are the same people the Quicksilver dance members spent those music-filled moments moving alongside.
Worried about those lost connections, Havlik made the decision to move those classes online. Now that she’s held some sessions, she describes these types of efforts as critical to pushing against an isolation and loneliness that will only grow worse as the weather grows colder.
“It’s going to be a hard winter,” she says. “We need to do all we can.”
Dancing in a tiny box on a screen is a much different experience, she says, but she has already seen it get people to move who might not otherwise.
She describes one woman from a recent class.
“She was kind of not moving at all, and she was a little grumpy, like someone brought her there,” Havlik says. She usually starts each session by asking participants to shake and wiggle certain body parts. “She didn’t do it at first. Then all of a sudden, you see these little shoulders move. Then I notice her fingers are wiggling. Then her whole body starts to wiggle. It was really wonderful to see. It’s like everything came alive. It was like she woke up.”
That same come-to-life energy is seen when the Quicksilver group comes together on Zoom. Havlik says she decided to resume the rehearsals virtually because the members also need those connections.
She invites me to sit in on a rehearsal, and while I witness some moments of frustration with the technology, what I mostly see is a playfulness that dominates the space. Havlik, who on that day is wearing snake-skin-patterned leggings, offers general instructions. The dancers then use their own creativity to move their bodies as a cellist provides live music.
During the exercise that calls for using movement to describe something that has made them happy, when Havlik finally calls Gloria’s name, she is ready with her answer.
It comes out in the form of graceful sweeps of her arms and poetically paced words.
“Sailboats on the water,” she says. “I received magnificent photos of sailboats. With the sun and the moon. In the pictures. As it was dawn.”
“Thank you, Gloria,” Havlik says. “Ending with some beautiful words.”
She then asks, “So how is everybody doing?”
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