In the early afternoon of Valentine’s Day 2015 — or V-Day, as The Vagina Monologues playwright/activist Eve Ensler likes to call it, adding deeper levels of meaning — the snow was coming down more heavily and beginning to stick; the roads were getting slippery. But that didn’t faze women (and their male allies) in the Hudson Valley who were gathering, like millions of others around the world, to sing and dance in protest of violence against women in the international event conceived by Ensler and known as One Billion Rising.
In places where it wasn’t snowing, those gatherings often took the form of outdoor flash mobs, consisting mainly of women young enough to know what a flash mob is. With about two dozen participants — some of them “dancing” seated or in wheelchairs — the group assembled in the lobby of Woodland Pond in New Paltz was neither a mob nor a spontaneous public gathering. The dancers had been training for weeks in a thrice-monthly movement class taught by dance therapist Susan Griss. And Debbie Allen’s choreography for Tena Clark’s defiant One Billion Rising anthem “Break the Chain” had to be simplified a bit for this crowd, because many of them were in their 80s or 90s.
“It’s a dancing revolution!” cried Griss as she led her students through the moves. Depending on their level of fitness, some were bouncing around to the music with surprising athleticism; others, their agility compromised by age and infirmity, were more subdued as they made their quarter-turns and waved their arms more or less in unison. But all conveyed a lively and spirited message of female empowerment, and they looked splendid dressed in vibrant shades of red, plum, fuchsia, maroon and raspberry pink. It was so much fun for dancers and onlookers alike that they ended up doing the routine three times.
It was clear that this was no mere social or recreational activity for this group of older women (and one or two men); the message of the campaign was definitely not lost on them. “I’m so elated by it,” said Annette Finestone. “Perhaps it’ll make a change.” At age 97 the senior member of the class, blind, diabetic and normally reliant on a walker to get around, Finestone may not be as spry as she once was, but she’s still feisty and irrepressible and ready to boogie for social justice. “I’ve been an activist all my life,” she said, “for every cause that comes up, from racial equality to political fightbacks.”
For fellow Woodland Pond resident Barbara Church, the cause is a personal one. Although she calls herself “fortunate to have had only loving men in my life,” she served on the board of deacons of the Presbyterian Church that founded the battered women’s shelter in Poughkeepsie known as Grace Smith House. As a social worker employed by the Department of Social Services, she had at least one client who stayed at the shelter. And Church’s own daughter was inspired to go on to a career in social work and ended up a staff member at the shelter. “The work of integrating these services is so important,” she said.
“I’m very happy that this is the second year here at Woodland Pond of Breaking the Chain against violence against women,” said resident Anne Hiller. “It’s very empowering, which is why my girls came,” chimed in Marilyn Dilascio, introducing her grown daughters Jessica and Janet and young granddaughters Sydney and Emma, who had come to join in the dance. “It’s a strong message.”
“We feel our power” when dancing together to “Break the Chain,” said Griss, whose background includes training at Bank Street College and Lesley University in teaching teachers how to use movement to teach curriculum. She first came to Woodland Pond to collaborate with a resident on choreographing a suite of dances, called “Here to Stay,” for four performers in their 80s and 90s. Soon afterwards she was asked to give classes to residents on a regular basis, designing “sequences to work on brain functions” as well as help keep them limber.
Having used the One Billion Rising model while working in a drug rehabilitation center in Ellenville, it was a natural progression to involve her elderly students at the New Paltz retirement community in the movement. She said that they were all excited by the prospect of joining in a positive activity that was being celebrated by people in over 200 countries on the same day. “I love the work of Eve Ensler,” Griss said. “It brings joy.”
Judging by the buzz in the Woodland Pond lobby on V-Day afternoon, these engaged and engaging older women couldn’t agree more. A couple of dozen like them here and another couple of dozen there, and before you know it you’ve got One Billion Rising.