Check It Out

“Everyone Can Dance”

The Washington Wizards’ dance troupe, Wizdom, whose members are 50 years and older, perform during a break in the Wizards’ March 15 game. Photo by PHOTOS BY TONI L. SANDYS / WASHINGTON POST.

Washington Wizards’ 50-and-older dance squad is thrilling crowds.

by Marisa Iati
©2019, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON—Vivian Lewis was captain of her high school’s cheerleading squad in 1966. Three daughters, six grandchildren and three great-grand-children later, she’s back to performing—but now she’s doing scream-making, sweat-dripping, hip-shaking hip-hop—in front of thousands of people.

Lewis, 71, is part of Wizdom, the Washington Wizards’ new dance troupe—with members who are all 50 and older—that was created to whip up fans at Capital One Arena.

Wizdom dancer Tanya Riley, 50, performing with the team. Riley’s daughter is a member of the Wizards Dancers. Photo by PHOTOS BY TONI L. SANDYS / WASHINGTON POST.

It seems to be working.

“The first performance that they did, you would have thought that we won the game,” said Derric Whitfield, Wizdom’s director. “They get a really intense crowd response—people standing up out of their seats, standing ovation.”

Wizdom’s 20 members, ages 50 to 76, sport red and blue jumpsuits and white sneakers as they bring a new choreographed routine for seven of the season’s 40 home games. They dance mostly during timeouts, while the Wizards’ regular dance troupe, the Wizards Dancers, perform at halftime and other breaks during the game.

Whitfield, who selected the Wizdom dancers from a pool of 50 people in a nail-biting process documented on the YouTube series “Road to Wizdom,” produced by AARP, said he’s breaking barriers and stereotypes with the team.

“What I want to prove with this team is, everyone can dance,” Whitfield said to the cameras. “Dance is for people of all ages.”

Make no mistake, he said: Wizdom dancers are not second-rate performers. Their moves are precise, and they pop with energy. Whitfield said the dancers relate to fans on a different level than the Wizards Dancers or the Wiz Kids, who are between 6 and 14 years old. Initially, there’s a bit of surprise from the audience that the Wizdom dancers can still shake it, he said, and then there’s plenty of whoops and hollers.

“The fans really get behind them, and it’s an instant support that they get because they’re older,” Whitfield said. “But when they come out and they’re performing these moves and executing them as great as they are, the shock value is another thing, as well, that gets the crowd.”

The challenge of coordinating dance moves can actually reverse age-related changes in the brain.

In addition to the camaraderie—not to mention a big stage and a shot of self-esteem—experts say what these older dancers are doing is also great for keeping their brains sharp.

The challenge of coordinating dance moves can actually reverse age-related changes in the brain, said Aga Burzynska, a professor of human development at Colorado State University. In a recent study of adults between 60 and 80 years old, Burzynska found that those who regularly practiced an English folk dance for six months saw improvements in brain structure beyond those who walked for exercise.

Wizdom has been such a success that the Wizards will hold tryouts again this fall for adults 50 and over who think they can make the cut. Like the members of all the Wizards’ dance teams, current Wizdom dancers will have to audition again if they want to perform next season. Lewis plans to try out again, although she said she expects many more dancers will audition now that word of the team has spread.

But no matter, Lewis said. She’s ready, and she’s staying focused on the success of the squad.

“It’s not about me,” she said. “It’s about what you can give and what you can do.”

The article was edited for length.

SGI President Ikeda’s Guidance 

We need to change our values, the way we look at aging. The rich fund of life experience that an older person has is a precious and irreplaceable resource, not only for the individual but also for those around him or her, and for society at large.

In one of his writings, Nichiren recounts how King Wen of the Chou dynasty in ancient China valued the elderly and respected their wisdom (see “The ‘Entrustment’ and Other Chapters,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 916). He goes on to say that the Chou dynasty lasted eight hundred years because of the wise policies of King Wen. . .

Many times, the words of older people, based on their long and abundant experience, possess a wisdom and weight that can take your breath away. I know countless elderly people whose lives shine beautifully. People who have built an indestructible self through their work for kosen-rufu literally sparkle. The secret is to live with dignity and confidence. (The Third Stage of Life, pp. 67–68)