“You know, I went to a tarot card reader last week,” bellows a gregarious octogenarian, wrapping one of his large, calloused hands entirely around my forearm. “I wanted to know who I was in a past life.”
“Oh, really?” I ask as he nudges a nearby conspirator, winking a glossy, twinkling eye. Wearing a baseball cap embroidered with a bald eagle proudly carrying an American flag in its talons and the kind of all-khaki ensemble that seems standard issue for elderly Southern men, his face combines the unassuming, hangdog features of Droopy the Dog with the roguish grin of Dennis the Menace.
“The fortune teller gave me a look over and said, ‘Ah, you were a dog! You don’t have the soft part behind your ears like most humans have.’ See, you have a soft spot behind your ears, darlin’. Feel it.” Obediently, I stroke behind my right ear, feeling a tender patch of skin.
“Okay, now feel for mine,” he says, tittering with the immediacy of a nearby punchline. “It’s not there!” Gingerly, I reach my fingers up to graze behind his ear when ...
“Wooooooof!” The man lunge at my hands like a dog going for a bone, baring his dentures and snarling. I snatch my hand back and let out a tiny yelp, as the man collapses into a fit of laughter.
“See? The tarot reader was right, I am a dog!” Cackles erupt from the senior citizen peanut gallery up and down the bar. I’ve been goofed.
Welcome to WTIX Dance Night, live from the Treasure Chest Casino in Kenner, Louisiana.
If you were to see a wild pack of pina colada-guzzling septuagenarians cutting up and cutting a rug, you’d probably rub your eyes in disbelief. (Then do it again, the second time trying to will yourself out of a dream.) But here in the Caribbean Room of the Treasure Chest, it’s all real.
Dorothy, you’re not at a regular dance night anymore.
Every Sunday evening in the belly of a behemoth, bejeweled casino nestled on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain, a tribe of dedicated dancers (who also happen to be card-carrying AARP members for 20-plus years) hitch kick, twirl and twist with an almost religious fervor. Hosted by New Orleans’ revered classic rock station WTIX, the evening’s DJ is radio personality Al Nassar (aka “Your Pal Al”), whose 40 years on the air fuel the kind of eclectic playlists that would humble even the most ardent music snob.
I discovered WTIX dance night through the kind of serendipitous domino effect (fueled by memory and a couple of watered-down bourbons) that sometimes makes the South seem magical.
Growing up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, my grandmother, Freda, was anything but an ordinary Southern woman. Freda smoked packs of unfiltered Camel cigarettes (picking the loose tobacco out of her teeth) while watching her favorite basketball player, Dennis Rodman, trot out any number of over-the-top hairdos during his time playing for the Chicago Bulls.
According to family lore, when my dad (then a law student) brought my mom to his small Kentucky hometown for the first time, Freda happened to be driving behind them in her truck as they headed down Main Street, checkered do-rag in her hair and cigarette limply hanging out of her mouth.
“Look, there’s my mom behind us!” my dad said, waving in the rearview mirror.
My mom laughed, picturing her own mother (a measured, Cadillac-driving, red lipstick-wearing, society pages aspirer from Chattanooga, Tennessee). “That’s not your mom! Wait, is it?”
Oh, it was. Over time, Freda would become a better mother to my mom than her own had been, making us all bigger, braver and more fun than we knew we could be.
Freda was a straight shooter in a way that still is disarming and rare, pegging good eggs and bad apples within moments of meeting them. She also was hellbent on teaching me bad habits.
The first was an ever-expanding collection of dirty turns of phrase and idioms, which I still blurt out accidentally to this day. When something smells bad, it takes everything in my power not to holler, “Gag a maggot on a gut wagon!” or describe a hoity-toity person as being “richer than two feet up a bull’s ass.”
The second bad habit was gambling. Each weekend when my parents would go out to dinner, Freda and I would spend hours playing poker, blackjack and spreading a bedsheet across her living room to shoot craps.
“It’s math!” she would say to my parents, who walked in one night to find their 8-year-old shaking dice in her hand and hollering, “Come on, boxcars!”
I’ve never walked into a casino without thinking of Freda. When I heard that a casino on the lake hosted an oldies dance night, I presumed it would be full of the kind of people Freda would’ve loved. I had to get there as fast as possible.
I was right. WTIX dance night is the kind of place my grandmother would’ve chuckled about. The lights are low, the (impossibly cheap) booze flows freely and the sounds of the 1960s wash over dancers like hymns. Buckets of beer bloom like makeshift flower arrangements on round plywood tables that encircle the checkered dance floor, while Tony — the night’s affable, regular bartender — makes $2 margaritas and screwdrivers for thirsty dancers. The air always smells lightly of witch hazel.
“They definitely get their exercise, that’s for sure,” Tony laughs. “It wasn’t an event just meant for older people, but it kind of happened that way. The oldies, I guess.”
In the cobalt-colored glow of the Caribbean Room — just a floor below unsuspecting people watching the roulette wheels spin or hollering out for three cherries — a mature subculture boogies into the night.
WTIX dance night feels like a way to connect with my grandmother, to live just a little bit longer with the kind of “devil may care” people she would’ve liked. So I keep going back.
While the weekly event isn’t limited to those revelers getting up in age, be prepared to earn your place at dance night, or you’ll weather the icy, judgmental glare of frosted-haired Southern women. Occasionally, a younger couple will amble in, looking to do a junior high-style slow-dance waddle or a relatively uninspired bump-and-grind. They always end up stepping back to watch in amazement.
First up on the floor — always — are the line dancers, who are somehow able to do coordinated group dances to everything from “Brown Eyed Girl” to Billy Joel. It is inexplicable. The leader of the pack is a tall, stately woman with a helmet of bottle blonde hair, whose Romanesque nose cuts the air as she glides across the floor. Clad in a slinky black top and flared pants, she shimmies and mouths along to the songs, adding in a number of signature spins and dramatic shoulder shakes. She is a polarizing figure.
“She always shows off like that,” a regular in a New Orleans Saints-themed muumuu whispers to me, rolling her eyes. “She’s good … but lord, don’t she know it.”
The gender split is right down the middle in the line-dancing crew, with tall, portly men in orthopedic socks and Hawaiian shirts often leading the two-stepping charge. A latter-day Elvis look-alike (tinted shades, bouffant and all) habitually commands a section of the floor, then wipes his brow with a sigh as he plops into a chair.
“Let me come sit on your lap and be Priscilla!” squeals a woman in cheetah print pants, her rhinestone-studded fleur de lis belt buckle catching the light.
Some people — the shy, the less coordinated — choose to dance near their own tables in the back of the room, carpet swishing beneath their feet. One woman (a former nurse still dedicated to wearing outfits resembling scrubs) cleans up a cranberry and vodka spill while rattling off all the names of the line dances her husband enjoyed doing: the Harlem shuffle, the freeze, the electric slide, the boot scootin’ boogie. She, on the other hand, likes to twist in solitude.
The dancers at WTIX night are completely without self-consciousness — the intersection of a wizened “take me or leave me” attitude and a desire to move in ways that aren’t normally sanctioned. The movements reveal the ripest culmination of a personality in motion: desires in each hip thrust or heel-toe kick, a lifetime of memories stored up in each slow-dance song request.
One particular evening, a stoic man sat watch over his oxygen tank next to his wife and two Gameboy-zombie grandsons, a chocolate cake melting on the table in front of them. It was his 80th birthday, and the night didn’t appear to be going too well as he sat in regimented silence. Almost to the end of the evening, his wife quietly requested “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge, helping her husband up and onto the dance floor for the first time.
His head burrowed into the nook of her neck, and as they creaked around in small circles he stroked the back of her head tenderly.
By the end of the song, the stone-faced man was weeping — bulbous, stored-up tears soaking his cheeks — as he smiled up at his wife.
You learn a lot at WTIX dance night, whether you go looking for the advice or not. Thus far, I have learned how to properly prepare a soft-boiled egg (five minutes in boiling water, lowered in slowly with a spoon), the perfect consistency for stewed prunes, how to get a bloodstain out of Lycra, and that bad crab meat can make you infertile.
These tips and factoids are all questionable in their accuracy.
The one piece of advice that everyone agrees on is that it’s a long life, and there’s no way I can understand now — at age 26 — just how long and full it will be.
This is, of course, completely correct.
“I don’t know why they feel like they have to line-dance to everything,” says Dan dismissively, a sinewy hand on my shoulder. “It’s just those aerobics moves they learn in their old-people classes. It’s so boring.”
Dan — better known as “Dan the Man” around dance night — is an 85-year-old rapscallion. A paratrooper in the Korean War, Dan loves to spin yarns, drink margaritas and (most importantly) dance to his own tune.
Dan is a phenomenal dancer, with the coordination and rhythm of someone half his age. He twists down to the ground like a 16-year-old at a sock hop — his knees gyrating to and fro — before popping back up to spin and dip his partner like a proud leading man. If you’re lucky, at the end of a dance he’ll unbutton his top shirt to reveal a black T-shirt underneath that reads, “Dan the Man!” in bright yellow letters.
“My kids got it for me,” Dan says, pointing at his chest. “They also told me what ‘YOLO’ means. I want another shirt with that on it. You really do only live once. I’m never going to stop having fun!”
Dan shows almost everyone a decades-old picture of his wife from their courting days, its weathered edges and sepia color unable to fade the love radiating from the photo.
“The best thing you can do in life is to make sure your wife keeps smiling,” says Dan. “When your wife stops smiling, that’s when things get bad. You got to keep her happy. I did that.”
The affection and tenderness between couples at dance night is palpable, with lovebirds cooing at one another while sharing a drink with two straws, soda fountain-style. Some of them have been married for decades; others found their current loves late in life. No one is resigned to loneliness.
“I taught myself how to dance. I’ve danced my whole life,” says one half of the night’s most affectionate couple, holding her beloved’s thick, calloused hand. “My daddy said I came out of the womb dancing.”
“She dances all around her living room,” her husband says, raising up a large hand to cradle her face. “I’m just the lucky guy who gets to watch.”
“You want to know the difference between precious and gorgeous?” says Dan the Man as we twirl on the dance floor to The Four Tops. “Gorgeous isn’t real: Gorgeous is what guys make up in their head about what a girl’s going to be like, but it has no basis in reality. Precious, though, is a girl that’s gorgeous and also real. A girl that’s beautiful, kind and fun. Precious is someone like you,” he says matter-of-factly, an aged scholar on the subject on women. I blush.
Dan the Man is still a flirt.
While there are many cliques at dance night with the kind of “pick a little, talk a little” chatter to rival the worst sewing circle, other tables are more modest and invested in the music itself.
“What’s your favorite song at dance night?” is a question that stumps many dancers cold, with the majority begging it off as almost impossible. This is not the case at a table full of regulars who are visually impaired, where the questions sparks rounds of passionate conversation and debate.
“I love coming to dance night to see if they’ll play anything by The Supremes,” says one man, tapping his hand in perfect rhythm on the table. “You know when Diana Ross hits those high notes? I’ve always loved that. I’d love to hear her live someday. I almost did once, in Atlanta.”
“My favorite song is one they almost never play,” says the group’s musical scholar, Harvey. “It’s called ‘If I Can Dream,’ by Elvis. He recorded it after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He had a cold when he recorded it. It sounds like gospel.”
Harvey warbles in his best Elvis voice:
There must be lights burning brighter somewhere,
Got to be birds flying higher in a sky more blue.
If I can dream of a better land,
Where all my brothers walk hand in hand,
Tell me why, oh why, oh why can't my dream come true?
I clap profusely when he finishes, patting him on the back. The whole table cheers.
“Do you have any kids, Miss Sarah?” Harvey asks with a degree of urgency.
I mumble a no.
“You don’t?” he says without missing a beat. “Well, you should have kids — kids are the best. You should make them listen to that song so they know about it. We need more good people who like this song in the world, who will keep its message out there.” He pauses for a breath.
“Music is powerful stuff.”
Ask anyone over the age of 70 the best decade of their lives, and the answer is always the same: right now.
“In your 20s, you’re so damn worried about your future and a family that it’s all so hard — even if you are good-looking still,” muses a man with icy blue eyes and a stack of gold chains around his neck. “Then you just worry about making money. Now, I’m dancing and drinking on a Sunday night with a clear schedule tomorrow. Ain’t nothing better than that.”
They want everyone to know that life does get better with age: The things that matter come into focus more clearly, and the fluffy worries of youth slide away.
The decades of knowledge and experience layered like mental sediment inside each dancer at WTIX dance night is overwhelming. On each visit, I have to resist the urge to embark on archeological digs into their memories, to sit them down with a tape recorder and capture their triumphs and tribulations from birth. I want to hear the stories of different times and places that I can never know and that so often are swept under the rug. I want to hear about old bar fights, broken hearts and what it was like to sit in a living room Chalmette, La., and watch a man walk on the moon for the first time.
I want them to know that all their stories, all their words of wisdom, matter.
There’s never enough time to hear it all, though, so we just keep dancing.