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Sul Ross dance reunites Waco seniors sidelined by pandemic
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Sul Ross dance reunites Waco seniors sidelined by pandemic

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Before the band began to play or the lights dimmed above the shiny silver party streamers, Gigi Hamlett, 91, had already hugged the majority of the 150-plus dancers waiting to take the floor.

The Boot Scootin’ Dance Club returned Thursday to the Sul Ross Senior Center after more than 15 months of closure because of COVID-19.

The club’s last dance was in March of last year. For decades, the club has been a social gathering spot for adults, not just senior citizens. Organizers said they received calls for months wondering when the city of Waco-owned property would reopen.

“A lot of our members had been asking when we were going to start back, and the answer was always when the city allows us to start up again,” club Vice President Larry Potts said. “Since the pandemic, everything had changed for us, from grocery shopping to going to church, and of course, not coming to the dance club.”

There was a line out the door Thursday of visibly excited people, eager to dance.

“I’ve hugged everyone,” Hamlett said, “and some people I don’t even know.”

A handful had continued life normally during the pandemic, but most had adhered to social distancing and had felt the isolation of quarantine. The reopening of the dance club, which was founded in 1978, is a welcome return. Potts, a 77-year-old Hewitt resident, found a satisfying way to pass the time.

“I built a nine-drawer dresser out of hickory,” he said. “I spent time in the workshop taking out my frustration with a saw and hammer.”

Quarantine time had also been spent counting losses of friends, Potts said.

“During these 15 months since COVID, we lost about 20 members of our dance club, but that was from a variety of things, not necessarily all COVID,” he said.

Potts and his wife, Marlene, who were coincidently celebrating their 46th anniversary Thursday, have attended dances at Sul Ross for four years. He said there are not many outlets like this for seniors to socialize, and attendees include people from as far away as Fairfield, Mexia and Temple.

There is usually a $5 cover charge, but last week’s reopening was a free one. Dances officially began at 7 p.m.

“We have people who show up at 5 o’clock,” Potts said. “They will get here early and have a cup of coffee, and they’ll sit here and visit. It’s not only the dance. It’s sharing the local news. It’s visiting with somebody that you don’t see (often).”

Before COVID-19, weekly attendance was about 110 people. Thursday’s tally hit 182. Hamlett, a Lorena resident who has been coming to the weekly dances for 40 years, said she was happy to see everyone and to hear the music. The Branded Heart Band played Thursday with many more artists on the schedule for summer. Club President Billy Rogers said the most difficult thing about reopening has been going by the city’s new guidelines, but it has been worth it.

“We have all been eager to get out and do something,” Rogers said.

Hamlett agreed.

“We’re lonely,” Hamlett said. “Let’s go where there’s people.”

Dancer Evelyn Montgomery, 81, of Temple, said her secret to happiness is staying active. Montgomery, a volleyball senior Olympics gold medalist and a seamstress, said she sewed more than 800 facemasks last year. She plays volleyball every week and has been coming to the dance club for 10 years.

“Everybody is just ready to get back to dancing,” she said. “I like being able to see our friends and we love dancing. There’s always a good band.”

All interviewed for this article were fully vaccinated, although vaccines nor masks are required to attend dances with the club.

Countywide, 68% of residents 65 or older are fully vaccinated, and 77% have at least one dose, said Kelly Craine, spokesperson for the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District. Statewide, 73% of seniors are fully vaccinated, she said.

“I would like to see us higher, but 68% is great,” Craine said. “We would like to see 100%, but we know that takes time. Our 65-and-up group has really embraced vaccines. It’s easier now than ever before to get vaccines, with many walk-in places now open all over the county.”

Potts said life has mostly returned to normal.

“I think the main thing that changed for us was we did start going back to church live, although we first went back wearing a mask inside,” he said. “I think some of the things we learned during the pandemic, like grocery curbside pickup—some of that stuff is going to stay with us.”

Potts addressed the crowd at start time but was barely heard over the anxious and excited chatter in the room.

“Dust off those dancing shoes,” Potts said. “Let’s do this!”

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