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Dancing like a family

The East Suffolk Sophisticated Steppers started their new line-dancing session with steps, turns, cha-chas and crosses. Newcomers and long-time members stepped and slid in formation in the East Suffolk Recreation Center gym on the evening of Feb. 25, the start of another six weeks of dancing.

C.L. “DJ Pleasure” White was teaching that evening. The 57-year-old DJ gave instructions through his headset and acted out the dance moves. The members — most of them seniors — carefully did the same, but with plenty of enthusiasm timed to the beat of the music.

“Your mind is always thinking of the next step to take,” said Evelyn Wall, founder of the ESSS. She also assists instructor James Jenkins with a line dancing class at the Suffolk Boosters Club on East Washington Street.

ESSS is a line dancing fitness group that’s based at the East Suffolk Recreation Center, 138 S. Sixth St. Wall formed the group in 2010 when then-Activities Director Curtis Kindred contacted her about starting an activity group for adults at the center.

Wall, who has enjoyed line dancing since 1999, jumped at the opportunity. She started with only a few members in the group’s first few weeks, but it’s since grown to as many as 35 to 40 members for a single, six-week session.

There were more than a dozen dancers of all skill levels in the latest session, with many long-time members wearing their black-and-yellow colors. Some of these clothes feature the nicknames that they’ve picked up over their years with ESSS.

“Our group is friendly and loving. We’re like family,” Wall said. “Everybody knows everybody.”

Line dancing is done in sequences of steps. Each dancer moves simultaneously, usually in the same direction. There’s no physical contact between the other dancers and no partner is required, which opens the door for even more to participate, Wall said.

Urban line dancing has been popular for decades, but many of the current soul line dances — such as the choreography for the “Wobble” — can be traced back to the late Dave Bush Jr. of Philadelphia, also known as the “Godfather of Line Dancing.”

The line dance scene keeps going with more songs being incorporated into dance routines, from country to R&B.

“A lot of people are surprised to learn that there is a (strong) line dancing community in this area,” said Evelyn’s son Mark Wall, 47, an assistant for ESSS.

He said he started line dancing around 1989, when a version of “Electric Slide” was popular on campus at the College of William & Mary during his freshman year.

“For me, I like the energy that goes into the dancing, and when you have group of people it becomes (even more) enjoyable,” he said. “It’s that energy of a group of people coming together to dance.”

It’s also a boon for older members that want to exercise their minds as well as their bodies. Research has shown that dancing provides positive effects for cognitive function.

A Harvard Medical School online newsletter titled “Dancing and the Brain” cited a 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine that showed that dancing helped to reduce elderly participants’ risk of dementia.

“According to the researchers, dancing involves both a mental effort and social interaction and that this type of stimulation helped reduce the risk of dementia,” the newsletter reads.

Evelyn Wall is the main instructor for ESSS, assisted by her son Mark, Ercella Pittman and White.
White has been DJing for ESSS for the last five years and teaching for two and a half. He takes them through multiple rotations of the same routine, and whenever he hears a member say “five, six, seven, eight” in rhythm, he knows to repeat the step for their benefit.

“You’ve got to be real patient with them,” he said. “You can’t rush through nothing. You have to be patient.”

Classes are lively and bustle with songs like “Cardio” by Cupid and Uncle Luke. But they’re also very welcoming to newcomers, like Sue Belknap, 70, and her daughter, Rebecca Crawford, 48.

The Suffolk mother and daughter were looking for a healthy activity that they could do together but wasn’t too difficult because of their age difference. It was their first time line dancing on Feb. 25 and they said they had a great time. White was patient and helpful to them, as were the other members.

“It’s fun, and it’s like a family,” Belknap said. “Nobody criticizes you if you do something wrong.”

The dancers of ESSS look out for each other through good times and bad. Jeanette Tyler, 71, was diagnosed with breast cancer last October and was still undergoing chemotherapy as of the Feb. 25 class. She’s been with the group since it first started in 2010.

Members were by her side that night, sharing contact information, words of comfort and hugs. Tyler said she’s going to work to get back into stepping and turning by her line dancing brothers and sisters.

“Everybody loves everybody,” she said.

Classes are held at the center on Monday nights from 5:30 to 7 p.m. and on Thursday from 11 a.m. to noon. The cost is $20 for the six-week period. Call 514-4500 for more information.