The past meets the present at the Fort Wayne Parks & Recreation Department's Community Center on Thursday afternoons. A cassette recording of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” fills the air as gray-haired women gracefully prance about in black leotards.
These 20 women are the Alley Kats, Fort Wayne's more mature version of the Rockettes. Named after the Bobby Riddell piece “The Alley Cat Song,” the women range in age from 63 to 91 and span two generations. They are former teachers, nurses, secretaries and others who share a common bond — a love of tap dance.
Teacher/choreographer Mary Louise Stellhorn, 91, has been dancing since she was a toddler and teaching since age 12. Later, as an adult, the Warsaw native was asked to teach a tap class at a branch of the YMCA. Eight women enrolled and shortly that number grew to more than a dozen, which led her to the Community Center.
Years later, Stellhorn is still going strong. In fact, her pace is so fast it was difficult to stop her for comments.
“We're better at dancing than talking,” she said.
Still, her limited comments were profound: “They're my family … they keep me going,” she said of the dance troupe.
The group performs several shows year-round at local venues, including nursing homes and public and private functions around town. Their repertoire includes a variety of classic jazz pieces, a la “All That Jazz.” Look for their trademark costume changes and props; Alley Kat Caroll Nichols designs the costumes.
At an age when most people are home, Stellhorn is as active as someone half her age. Along with her involvement in the Alley Kats, she swims, walks and bicycles. Her secret: “You have to stay real(ly) active to get old,” she said.
Good company can't hurt, either. And it's true the Alley Kats are a sisterhood, sharing good times and bad. Over the years, they've mourned the loss of husbands together, felt sympathy pains through surgeries and celebrated the births of grandchildren.
Alley Kat Joanne Warmuth first discovered the group at age 55 and was instantly drawn to them.
“As soon as I saw this group, I thought, ‘If this is what they're doing to stay young, I'm doing it, too,'” she said.