“Take the ribbon from your hair.”
As the Reno County country band eases into “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” Betty and Jack Sawyer rise and take their position at one end of the basketball court in the Orchard Park Recreation Center, slowly swaying to the music. At 94, Jack can’t hear or see as well as he used to, but that doesn’t stop the Sawyers from attending one, two or even three Golden Age dances a week.
“It’s just good to get out of the house,” Jack said. “You get stale.”
Added Betty: “You get to dance to different bands, and you meet such nice people.”
The Sawyers are part of a group of regulars at senior dances that have been put on at three locations in Wichita for decades. Ranging in age from their late 50s and up, the dancers are a diverse lot: Depending on the music, you might find them twisting, twirling, waltzing, polkaing, cha-chaing or lining up for a line dance. Singles and couples are both welcome, and attire runs from skirts and sports coats to pressed jeans, boots and cowboy hats. Like the Sawyers, some dance at Minisa Community Facility on Thursdays, Orchard Park on Fridays and the Linwood Recreation Center on Saturdays.
But even though they still fill up the dance floor on occasion, there is concern that falling attendance at some point might cause the get-togethers to be discontinued.
Casey Furnish, who coordinates the Orchard Park dance with her husband, Larry, said the Orchard Park dance used to average about 160 people, and it wasn’t unusual for 200 or even 220 to show up on occasion. Now attendance ranges from 70 to 100.
Organizers report similar falling numbers at Minisa and Linwood. The culprit? You probably guessed it.
“After COVID, things kind of went downhill all the way around,” Furnish said.
Early in the pandemic, the dances were canceled for 15 months. They resumed on a twice-monthly basis in June 2021 and returned to weekly in August of that year. “We never had an outbreak, never had a cluster, so that was good,” Furnish said.
But they also never attracted the same kind of crowds as before.
“It’s not what it used to be, but gosh, we lost a lot of people,” Furnish said. “Especially during COVID, our people passed away because they were isolated. I really believe that.”
Furnish noted that organizers of the Goldenrod Golden Age dance, which had been held on South Pattie, discontinued it, and the dance held at the Augusta Senior Center recently met the same fate.
The Golden Age dances charge $3 per person, almost all of which goes to paying the band. The dances feature a regular rotation of performers including Reno County, Mood Swings, Timeless, The Pruitts, Triple Play and Jim McCann. Most play a mix of older rock and roll and country tunes, although Mood Swings features a saxophone and Big Band music.
“Some of the people, it’s their era, they love that,” Furnish said.
While the dances could be done with recorded music, dancers left no doubt that live music is a big draw.
They also said the dances are about more than just moving their feet and bodies, as much fun as that can be.
“There’s no drinking or smoking, and everybody’s the same age as you,” said Rosie Miller, a regular at Minisa and Orchard Park for 25 years. “So you can talk to each other and know what each other are talking about.”
Furnish said the dances have “a family feel.” At the Orchard Park dance, two get-well cards were set out at the entrance to be signed for regulars who couldn’t make it.
“People really, really care about one another,” Furnish said. “You’ll see them — even during the music — they’ll stop. They’ll see somebody they haven’t seen in a while, get in a little circle and hug someone.”
To help people stay in touch, the Orchard Park group put out a directory of members’ names and phone numbers if they wanted to be included in it.
At Linwood, members have started a potluck on the second and fourth Saturday of each month. “It’s nice to get together with people — the socializing — and of course the dancing,” said Jim Ruboyianes, who coordinates the Linwood dance with his wife, Donna.
The dances start at 7 p.m., break for a half-hour of refreshments and talk at 8 p.m., and wrap up at 9:30 p.m. Attendees come from as far away from Peck and Winfield.
“One guy is 95, can’t drive, but by golly he gets a ride and he pays the person who brought him,” Furnish said.
Jack Sawyer can’t understand why more don’t do the same.
“They’re missing something,” he said. “Put this message in (The Active Age). You people should get off your butt and dance.”