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Years don't slow these high kickers

Published Sep. 13, 2005

(ran SS edition of Metro & State)

Collectively, they've lived a whopping 507 years.

Between them, they have 22 children, 41 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren with another on the way.

They're the Grandmother Rockettes.

And they've been struttin' their stuff around town, around Florida and even around the country for the past 16 years.

Last weekend, they won a platinum first-place award in a regional dance contest in Lakeland.

Their average age, 72, may sound more like a golf score.

But the Grandmother Rockettes are anything but grandmotherly when they perform. Often they compete in the "30 and Over" category in dance contests.

In addition to practicing four to six hours, the Rockettes usually put on three or four shows a week. They're off in July and August.

"These women are real troupers," said director, Jeanne Hall, at a recent session in her St. Petersburg studio, the Jeanne Lynn Dance Studio.

"They never have excuses. They're never late. And they're always cheerful," Hall said.

"We do have a good time together, don't we?" Frances Lung, 77, asked rhetorically.

"And we love to dance," Vi Weaver, 74, chimed in.

Today, the Grandmother Rockettes have about 20 different routines and costumes to match.

The four original members are still active including Fran Norwood, 70, of Seminole; Lung, of Clearwater and Largo residents Madeline Gustafson, 79, and Peg Cameron. Rounding out the troupe are Weaver of Largo and Juanita Dunstan, 63, and Jackie Winslow, 66, of Seminole.

Cameron, 78, doubles as the group's comedian.

From 1937 to 1946, she and her sister, Joan, danced as a duet, the Mills Sisters, in their native England.

"You don't have to be a grandmother to be in the Rockettes, Norwood said. "But, actually we've only had one member who wasn't even a mother."

Talent isn't a must either, although several of the women danced professionally or took dance lessons as children.

Norwood, for instance, performed in Maryland during the 1940s and '50s. Now she performs solo numbers with the Rockettes, but it's just for fun.

In 1996, she won the annual Time Warner Senior Talent Show in Clearwater. Last year, she was voted Miss Congeniality in the Ms. Senior Florida contest and placed fourth overall. In last weekend's competition, she also won a first-place award for a solo dance she performed.

And the rest of the grandmothers aren't slouches either.

Since 1982, the Grandmother Rockettes have won 15 regional dance contests and four national competitions.

As amateurs, they cannot receive a salary. However, the group usually receives a small donation which goes into a kitty to pay for dance lessons, contest expenses, new costumes and props.

In many cases, depending on the cause, the group donates its services.