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Flint, MI– There are twenty other women around Delois Jackson following her steps and sways and snaps in a recreation room in Berston Field House–but she doesn’t see them.
Jackson, 60, knows, of course, that the women are there, but when she’s dancing the whole world seems to disappear.
She steps forward, then back, leans down, comes back up, all while rocking her arms side to side in perfect rhythm with Stan Butler’s “Down in the Kuntry” blasting through a huge speaker in the front of the room.
Masked up and evenly spaced roughly six feet apart from each other, the other women follow Jackson’s moves but add their own flair. Some women lean down a little further, clap on the beat, or shake their hips with a little more oomph. Most of these women are 60 or older–Jackson said her oldest dancer is 88–but they know they’ve still got it.
They’re smooth, as their name, Smooth Steppers, would imply. The women all have matching T-shirts which, like their dance moves, they’ve added their own flair to with scissors and a little creativity.
Jackson started the Smooth Steppers in 2017 as a dance group. The following year, she developed a dance class at Berston with the group, which at that time only had six members. They met one day a week, and pretty soon, more and more people started joining.
Now, every Wednesday at noon, 20 or so ladies, and sometimes a few men, come down to dance. So far, Jackson said she’s created and taught 180 different dance routines to all kinds of music–jazz, R&B, country, gospel.
“Whatever you tell me you want, that’s what we do. And if I don’t have a dance for it, I’ll make one up for you,” Jackson said.
The class is fun and social, but it’s also exercise. Jackson said she tries to get at least two miles worth of steps in each class. On this particular Wednesday, according to her Fitbit, she’d gotten in 5,749 steps by 2 p.m. By her calculations, that’s about two and a half miles.
“My doctor told me whatever I’m doing to keep doing it, you know, so it’s a healthy thing for us,” Jackson said.
Jackson had a stroke in 2012, and said when it happened, she thought she might never even be able to walk again.
“You know, and it made me really, really appreciate dancing because I thought I was going to be paralyzed,” she said.
A lot of the women in the class have had similar stories, and say dancing has helped them with their health.
Doretha Phillips, 66, said a couple years ago she felt really sick and went to see her doctor for an A1C blood test, which tests for diabetes. Her A1C number came back at 6.7 which is in the range for diabetes.
For the last two years, she’s been attending line dancing class and walking six or seven miles a day, which she said “brought (her) body all the way back around.” Now, her A1C number is in the “normal” range.
“I love Smooth Steppers. I didn’t realize how much it was helping me … I never stop dancing. My number is 5.8, so you know I’m good,” Phillips said. “It works for me. I’m in it to win it.”
Arlene Jones-Smith, 63, said dancing has helped her shake off the “COVID weight.”
“I think everybody has gained a little, I call it, COVID weight because we’re stuck in a lot,” she said. “So this helps, you know, with getting out and exercising. And actually, every time I go to the doctor, they tell me, ‘Oh, you’re doing good with your weight.’”
Debra Richardson, who specifies that she’s 67 “years young,” said she found dancing as a way to stay active once she retired.
“When you’re working, you’re constantly moving on that job anyway. So I had to try to feel that void that was missing because of work. And so I had to pick up another activity, start doing something,” she said.
Her sister is the one who told her about the line dancing class and pushed her to join. At first, Richardson was apprehensive, but after one class, she fell in love.
“It keeps your mind and your body moving, and my doctor says it’s great,” Richardson said.
With dancing, there’s a physical component but also a mental one. A lot of women said learning the routines put their memory to the test.
“It makes you use your brain, you know, because you have to get those steps into your muscle memory,” said Velecia Ford. “The more you do it, the repetition helps your brain, you know, keep working.”
Ford, 65, said that’s an important component of the class for her.
“I like that part because I’m always doing things to keep my mind stimulated, as I’m getting older,” she said, and laughed. “You forget a little bit more than you did.”
Jackson doesn’t write any of her dances down–she says she wants to make sure she’s using her mind. She does, however, record videos of herself doing the dances to help the other ladies practice at home.
Sandra Holland-August, 68, watches her videos every morning before class to refresh her memory on the routines.
“Being a particular age, your memory is not as good as it used to be. So what I do is, I watch her videos every Wednesday morning when I get up, and then I least have an idea when we do perform it … I practiced that this morning, and I came back, and I was pleased with myself,” she said.
For a lot of the women, dancing has boosted their confidence. The ladies who have been dancing with the group for years have seen themselves grow as dancers, learn hundreds of routines, make friends, perform at events, and feel good.
Sheila McGruder, 63, said when she’s dancing, she feels “sexy.”
“If you know the dance, you can almost close your eyes and do it and you move with the rhythm of the music,” said McGruder. “Once you know it, you sway a little bit different. You close your eyes and feel that music you know.”
Holland-August said dancing has made her look and feel good, too.
“Every woman likes to look good. I like to turn a head or two even though I’m married,” she said. “And my butt is looking so much better. I shouldn’t say that. But I love it, I love it, I love it.”
Meeting the other women and learning dance routines has also given her the confidence to get up and dance on her own, or with friends, at parties and other events.
“Most of the time when you go to some place, a man is not going to ask you to dance,” she said. “Okay, so we monopolize the dance floor. And to me, we are a sisterhood.”
Rose Stradwick, 62, said Jackson is like “a real sister” to her. Philips chimed in and said they all call Jackson their sister, or their “sis.”
For a lot of these ladies, with kids and grandkids, the Smooth Steppers is like another family.
“It’s like a great big happy family,” said 73-year-old Charlotte Patrick. “And it seems like we all love one another. That’s what’s most important to me.”
They’ve danced together and supported each other like sisters on and off the dance floor– especially during the pandemic. When a lot of social activities shut down, the Smooth Steppers found a way to keep dancing.
Jackson said they moved the classes outside to the parking lot, and spread far apart. They continued to dance together, but they also prayed together a lot, which Jackson said brought them all closer. When it was one of their birthdays, the ladies would each get in their cars and drive by their house to say hello from outside.
“It really gave (us) hope, and I was trying to encourage them, but I was really encouraging myself because I was scared too,” Jackson said. “I didn’t know … We thought the world was coming to an end, but the only thing that we had was, we were going to be outside and we could at least see each other.”
For a couple hours a week, the women were able to see their friends, and forget about their worries while they danced.
“This class, for me, relieves stress,” Richardson said. “The last two years have been tough for everybody. But when we come to this class, I seem to let it fall away. I let go. I’m in the moment when I’m dancing.”
That’s exactly what Jackson has tried to teach them all. She creates the routines and guides them, but really, the class isn’t about getting every move exactly perfect. It’s about a feeling.
“You’re in here, you dance how you want, however you feel. And that’s the thing a lot of people try to dance according to how someone else says,” Jackson said. “I say, you do you. Dancing is a feeling. When you dance, you can close your eyes and the whole world disappears … you dance your whole worries away. And that’s what it’s all about.”
Anyone interested in dancing with the Smooth Steppers is free to join them on Wednesdays at noon at Berston Field House.