The Glitterbugs were invited to compete in a talent show this year, and they accepted the challenge. But competition has never been a goal of the senior citizen dance team from Frankfort.
Three original members — Sylvia Coffey, Alice Delambre and Jan Fowler — all 75-plus now and still going strong in their 12th season, will tell you it’s all about getting together, having fun, and sharing their joy with audiences.
Practicing once a week for an hour is a good physical workout. Learning the dance steps, and remembering them at next week’s practice session, is great exercise for the brain too.
It’s not like boot camp. Sylvia, the dance instructor and choreographer, is not a drill sergeant. She’s always a gentle, compassionate, understanding soul with new members, and encourages them with the news that “we’ve all been where you are right now, and what may seem difficult and a struggle at first will change, and this will all seem easy. Trust me.”
Once you learn the dance steps, it is easy as long as your mind stays in the present moment. If the mind wanders for a second — perhaps like thinking about what you need to get at the grocery store after practice — you’re in trouble, even on the easiest of dances. But you’ll be forgiven by the other Glitterbugs. That’s a guarantee. They’ve all been there.
“In a nutshell, what it means for me to be a Glitterbug is fellowship, family, and sharing,” Sylvia says.
The 15 current members are family. They celebrate birthdays together. They often get together on Thanksgiving and Christmas for desserts and a movie night at Marie Berberian’s home. Sometimes the films are musicals. Probably the most memorable holiday movie at Marie’s was the night the Glitterbugs watched “The Rockettes,” an American precision dance company, starring in the annual “Radio City Christmas Spectacular” in New York City.
How the Glitterbugs got started
Sylvia led a no-partners dance class at the Thorn Hill Education Center in the early 2000s. Marie Berberian and Alice Delambre were in the class, and Jan Fowler and her husband, George, and Marcia Burklow joined later.
“We did many of the dances the Glitterbugs do now — oldie goldies,” Sylvia says. “The class stopped when Thorn Hill had to reorganize,” but Alice, Jan and Sylvia wanted to continue the dances, and they found a convenient place on Murray Street, a vacant house that Sylvia’s son and wife were putting on the market. They began dance practice there in January 2011, and Alice suggested getting sequined vests and bow ties, which she ordered after getting unanimous approval.
Then the Glitterbugs name “just fell into place to go along with the glitter vests,” Sylvia said. “Our granddaughter, Cheryl Clarke, made a Glitterbugs logo for us.”
Their first program was in 2012 at Ashwood Place, followed by one two months later at what is now the Capital City Activity Center/Meals on Wheels Greater Frankfort for senior citizens.
Today, the Glitterbugs have performed more than 100 programs in Franklin, Shelby, Anderson, Woodford, Scott and Fayette counties — with 20 being at Morning Pointe Assisted Living in Frankfort and 11 at the Capital City Activity Center, where the Glitterbugs usually practice one day a week.
“Almost every time we have a performance, one or more in the audience say they love our vests,” Sylvia says. “It’s always great to see them tapping their feet, singing along, and swaying their arms and hands when we conclude our show with the song ‘Hallelujah.’
“We love it when we see staff members dancing in the background, and sometimes they join us while we’re dancing. It’s nice to hear a staff person in a memory unit tell you after a show that it was the first response she had ever seen from some of the residents.”
Another beautiful moment this year was when Mother Superior for the Sisters of St. Joseph the Worker at Taylor Manor nursing home in Versailles joined the Glitterbugs on the dance floor for “Jerusalema.” The hit song — by South African DJ and record producer Master KG, featuring South African vocalist Nomcebo — united the world in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A few jittery Glitterbugs
On competition night for the Glitterbugs — when they were about to perform on stage in the historic Lexington Opera House — Julia Rome, an energetic dancer, forgot her costume slacks.
The event was the fourth annual Morning Pointe Foundation “Seniors Got Talent” event on September 12, 2023.
Julia, who minored in dance at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, quickly made phone calls to family members and friends in Frankfort to see if anyone could go to her house, get her white costume slacks and rush them to downtown Lexington. It was too late.
But Angela Mitchell, the youngest Glitterbug at age 64, had an idea. She had worn light gray slacks to rehearsal that afternoon, and offered them to Julia, whose rehearsal attire was a dark pink dress.
After giving Angela’s slacks a try, Julia said, laughing, “It’s a miracle. God is definitely with us tonight.” The Glitterbugs were elated, but some were still jittery after seeing the large crowd in the audience. There were 11 acts on the program, and the Glitterbugs were act nine.
Angela Mitchell said later, “Never in a million years did I think I would be dancing show tunes in front of mostly senior citizens, much less competing in a Seniors Got Talent show. As a child and young adult, I did minimal dancing, but never any type of choreographed steps.”
She says she always felt a little uncoordinated and ill-at-ease about dancing with people watching her.
Angela’s introduction to dancing began around 2015 when her older daughter, Sarah, owner of the Frankfort Yoga Studio, invited Sylvia Coffey to teach an international dance class.
“Class participants ranged in age from their 20s to 70s. We learned various choreographed dances from countries around the world, and it was challenging, stimulating and exciting. After the dance sessions ended, Sylvia invited me and my partner, Charlie Pearl, and the late Joe Fiala to come dance with the Glitterbugs.
“I had reservations about it, but I’m so glad I decided to say ‘yes.’ This introduced me to the wonderful family we now have with the Glitterbug dancers, and gives me a sense of joy in lighting up elderly faces as we dance in various nursing homes and assisted living centers. I’m so inspired by some of the older dancers in our troop, especially Marcia Burklow and Chris Sparks. It gives me hope that I will continue to be able to dance for several more decades.”
Confident Chris and company
Chris Sparks, 13 days shy of her 81st birthday on Seniors Got Talent night, had absolutely no fear of going on the big stage in Lexington, and was the only contestant to perform twice: first with the Capital Steppers, seven line dancers, the second act; and then with the Glitterbugs, with plenty of time to change costumes.
“I was just trying to keep everybody else from being so nervous,” she says.
Both Frankfort dance groups earned awards. The Capital Steppers won the People’s Choice Award, receiving the most audience votes for their peppy medley to “Rock Around the Clock,” “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
The Glitterbugs, age 64 to 87, took third place overall, performing to “All That Jazz,” the opening song from the 1975 musical “Chicago.”
Another Frankfort resident, Ron Cheak, 68, received first place and a $500 cash prize for his swinging rendition of Frank Sinatra’s song “The Best Is Yet To Come.”
Chris started dancing ballet in Missouri at age seven. When her family moved to Harrodsburg several years later, “I danced as a kid with the Harrodsburg High School band and took tap-dancing classes.”
A native of Cincinnati, Chris says she’s always worked at being physically fit.
Not long after retiring from the Kentucky Department of Public Health in 2009, Chris, a nurse, returned to practicing and performing ballet and tap dancing at the Frankfort School of Ballet. She enjoyed getting back into dance recitals, and performed many Christmas seasons in The Nutcracker at the Grand Theatre.
In addition to performing with the Glitterbugs and The Capital Steppers, she bowls regularly in a Ladies League and with an Elks Lodge team; works out three times a week at Fit Time For Women; and sings with the Capital City Chorale. Chris believes she can continue dancing for at least another decade, “and I hope longer than that.”
Marcia Burklow, 87, says she had limited experience in social dancing in earlier years, “due to more time involvement in piano, choral group and instrumental band activities.” Taking dance lessons later was “primarily for sheer enjoyment and exercise.” The recent experience of dancing in the Seniors Got Talent program “was certainly an unexpected and thrilling highlight in anyone’s dancing journey,” Marcia said.
Jan Fowler says it’s been an amazing experience following Sylvia to various places dancing. “I wanted movement but not in a gym. This experience has led me to a new loving family that has reached out to a community that enjoys entertainment.”
Alice Delambre says she loves “interacting with our audiences and seeing them participate in the music with us. We have welcomed new members over the years, and each adds something special to the group.”
Karen Cosby joined the Glitterbugs about four years ago. “I was pretty new during the long period of isolation during COVID-19. It was great that we were able to meet outside during the whole summer and fall of 2021. I had been a long-time participant in a stretching and aerobics class that had recently ended when our instructor retired. So it was great to find a new way to have fun while making new friends and getting physical and mental exercise.
“As we age, having the mental challenge of learning the steps and the physical challenge of improving balance has been really important. Performing at senior living facilities is very rewarding as we see the joy on the faces of residents. My mother was a resident at an assisted living facility for several years before her death, and I know how much she enjoyed anyone who entertained at her facility.”
Eileen Cackowski took an international dance class, and had “such a wonderful time with a group of encouraging, non-judgmental people, that when asked to join the Glitterbugs, I said I’d try. I felt more like a Glittergrub for a long time but was encouraged to continue. The group is so very kind and compassionate, one to another, that it was easy to try harder each time. Everyone should enjoy the feeling of being a Glitterbug.”
Arba Kenner, a retired medical doctor, joined the Glitterbugs several years ago after seeing them perform at her church, Frankfort First United Methodist. “Dancing with the Glitterbugs is the most fun way to get exercise, and it’s a great group of people.”
Julia and David Rome joined the Glitterbugs around 2015 after seeing them perform outside the Old Capitol for a Fourth of July program. “I’ve always loved to dance, from ballet to contra to African, all kinds,” Julia says. “I already knew Sylvia and several others and knew I’d love to dance with them. It’s fun and not too serious, and I love that my husband, David, dances with us.
“We do a variety of dances, and we’re always adding new dances, so it doesn’t get boring. I count Sylvia as a blessing in my life, not only for being our wonderful dance leader but also for all she does for our community. I cherish her friendship.”
David Rome added, “Dancing has always been an important part of Julia’s and my life for the past 41 years. Now that I’m a senior citizen and slowing down, the Glitterbugs has been the perfect center for our dancing. The choreography is fun and rarely challenging, the dance music is great and varied, our fellow dancers have become good friends, and the opportunity to perform at senior residential homes is uplifting and rewarding.”
Nancy Schaffner joined the Glitterbugs this year and says it has been “an awesome experience. Every member has welcomed me into the group and taken time to make sure I feel comfortable. I love to dance and enjoy learning from these experienced dancers. I look forward to many more years of dancing with the Glitterbugs.”
Sylvia, a North Carolina native, met her husband Don Coffey in Berea at Kentucky Summer Dance School in 1988, and they’ve been dancing together ever since. They own a 43-acre farm, named “Dancing Meadow” on Mink Run Road. Many dances and dinners have taken place in their large open living room and dining hall. Don, an excellent musician and smooth dancer, handles the sound system and transportation for the Glitterbugs.