The dancers stand side by side in long lines. They cha-cha, they dip, they twist, they slide up and down the basketball court inside a sprawling community center in North Nashville. Classic soul and hip-hop CDs play through a speaker on the floor.
These are the Hadley Park Line Dancers.
“I like ‘Push It.’ I like Jaime Foxx,” founding member Joann Jones says. “I like ‘Flashing.’ I like them all.”
Before the pandemic shut down activities at the Hadley Park Community Center, this free dance class would bring dozens of senior citizens to the gymnasium each Tuesday and Thursday morning.
The bonds the dancers formed have helped them overcome the health issues and isolation that many seniors experience — especially now, as the dancers face a particularly uncertain year.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that most of the group is over 65. They’re here to sweat — and have fun doing it.
“I consider them my sisters and my brothers,” explains Jones. “So, we are definitely family. It’s like one big happy family.”
From Sock Hops To Senior Dances
You might call Joann Jones the matriarch of this family. She’s 79 years old and a retired school teacher. Jones co-founded the group, which meets at Hadley Park, one of Nashville’s first public parks created for African American residents.
When I visited the class a few weeks before the pandemic, it wasn’t hard to see what she loves so much about this group.
“To see the group dancing in unison, it’s beautiful,” Jones says.
She was in her usual spot in the front row, wearing sneakers and a lime-green shirt with the group’s logo printed in sparkles.
“I love to dance,” she says. “As my husband says, ‘She dances in the kitchen. She dances in the…[laughter].’ I dance all over the house because I love it.”
Jones was born in 1941. She grew up in South Memphis during segregation. Her father worked on the railroad to support a family of 12.
Back then, some of her best memories happened on Monday nights, when all the kids in her neighborhood headed to the YMCA, took off their shoes and danced.
“That was one of the criteria,” she recalls. “If we behaved, we’d get to go to the sock hop on Mondays. That was our reward.”
But those sock hops were about more than just dancing. They were a reunion, Jones explains, “To be together again and to enjoy something that was fun together.”
Those nights at the YMCA were part of her inspiration for co-founding the group at Hadley Park in 2008. And for several years, it brought her right back.
But then, about seven years ago, she got some bad news: She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Her joint pain grew so severe that she couldn’t even walk, let alone dance. She stepped down from leading the group and stopped coming to class.
“I had a pity party,” Jones says. “I was staying in. I was moody. I was crying. Loneliness is one of those feelings that nobody wants to ever have to endure. It’s like you’re isolated. It’s just you.”
This is a common feeling among seniors: the isolation that comes with age, not being able to get out and do what you love.
The community that these dancers built at Hadley Park had been a place for seniors to overcome that isolation. But in the wake of her diagnosis, that community felt off-limits to Jones.
‘We’re Finding A Way’
After months of sitting at home with arthritis, Jones’ friends persuaded her to come back — just to watch, at first. But she fought through the pain. Little by little, her joints started to feel better.
As Jones describes it, “I pulled myself up and made up my mind that, ‘Hey, this is not going to get me.’”
She resolved to never let anything come between her and her Hadley Park family again.
“Everything changes when you have that support system,” Jones explains. “I am so happy that they are a part of my life. And I’m hoping and praying that they will remain a part of my life.”
But, of course, in the months since I first met Jones, the group’s bond has been tested more than ever.
When a tornado struck Nashville in early March, the Hadley Park Community Center became a shelter for neighbors who lost their homes. Then the pandemic arrived. Gathering dozens of senior citizens for an hour of hugs and indoor exercise suddenly became unthinkable.
“We haven’t been dancing, and we miss it,” Jones says. “But we gotta do what we gotta do.”
COVID-19 has forced the dancers to find new ways to keep their community together. They’re checking in with video chats, staying connected on social media and meeting up for socially distanced walks.
“We’re apart, but we’re not apart. We’re finding a way to be together,” she says.
After all, this isn’t the first challenge Jones has faced, and she knows that it won’t be the last.
“And they might get harder each time,” Jones says. “But you grow, and as you grow, so does your spirit, and it helps you to overcome. So, we’ll just wait for the next one and be ready to challenge it.”
This story was originally produced for the podcast Neighbors. Hear a longer version at neighborspodcast.com.