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Hip hop

Gotta Dance: Seniors Take On Hip Hop

by Rachel Levin
August 31, 2009
Hip hop has traveled far since its inception thirty years ago in the gritty South Bronx, reaching across race, class, and culture to infiltrate the nation and the world with its infectious, danceable beats. Even though hip hop dance has lost some of its raw edge as it's been polished in suburban dance studios and mainstream entertainment, it's still associated with a sense of sensuality and aggression that places the genre firmly in the realm of youth culture. Until now. It seems that hip hop has finally conquered its final frontier: senior citizens.

Dori Berinstein's documentary "Gotta Dance" chronicles the formation and rise to fifteen-minute stardom of the first-ever senior citizen hip hop dance team for the New Jersey Nets basketball program. The film arrives at a time when the nation is embroiled in debates over health care reform, with end-of-life care for seniors being a touchstone issue. At the heart of the film is the implicit message that Americans' approach to aging is in need of a tune up; instead of more doctors and medications, the best prescription for the over-60 set may be activities like dance, which offer seniors the opportunity to maintain physical vitality and mental zest.

Though they range in age from 60 to 83 and have a wide variety of backgrounds that include families and careers, the 13 members of the NETSational Senior Dance Team — 12 women and 1 man — are united by a love for dance. The film is at its most engaging when it dips into the youthful past of these boomers who expressed postwar jubilation through dances like jitterbug, swing, and mambo. Some of the team members are quite accomplished dancers in the genres of their era. One member danced for years with a group called the Happy Hoofers; another is a tap dance teacher for children; still another is a 60s disco queen turned ballroom diva.

Yet hip hop poses considerable challenges even for those who have kept dancing in their golden years. The boastful swagger and saucy sexiness of hip hop choreography requires the seniors to leap out of their comfort zone and defy stereotypes of older people as docile, physically frail, and sexless. One of the women, an elementary school teacher named Betsy, creates an alter ego "Betty," to help her overcome her fear of expressing the sensual and charismatic aspects of her personality that she's repressed not just as a senior, but, it seems, throughout her life. Her ability to integrate Betty and Betsy by the end of the film is especially satisfying.

Director Berinstein, a Tony-winning Broadway producer of shows including "Legally Blonde" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie," sees Broadway potential in the story of the NETSationals. She has plans to adapt the film into a Broadway musical. Yet she's also interested in spreading the NETSationals gospel — that anyone can embrace the power of dance and age is nothing but a number — to the general public. She's launched GottaDanceWithUs.com, a social networking site for adult dancers. Royal Caribbean cruise lines has rolled out the "Gotta Dance" program inspired by the film, where passengers of all ages have the opportunity to learn choreography and compete in dance teams.

The film has clearly contributed to the dance zeitgeist whipped up by such reality programs as "So You Think You Can Dance?" Only this time, grandma and grandpa get to take center stage.
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