The New Florida Follies performs last month at Spanish River High School in Boca Raton, which will be the site of two more shows, on March 24 and 31. Some women in the troupe dance into their 80s and beyond. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Ron Hayes
Just think of all the clichés we embrace in trying to slow down time.
“You’re as young as you feel!” we tell ourselves.
“Age is just a number!” we say.
“Eighty is the new 60!” we hope.
Now meet two Highland Beach hoofers who believe you’re as young as you dance.
Marlene Perlstein, 81, and Jo Schlags, 85, tap, kick, shimmy and strut like they feel about 22 and age is just a chorus line.
And they’re not alone.
At 1:15 p.m. on Feb. 17, Perlstein, Schlags and 32 other women aged 55 to 95 in nearly identical blond wigs stood in the backstage shadows at the Countess de Hoernle Theatre at Spanish River High School, stretching, bending, twisting, turning and straining to touch the rafters. Warming up.
“Reach ’em!” their artistic director, Cheryl Steinthal, demanded. “Reach ’em!”
In 45 minutes, that curtain will part and the New Florida Follies will break into “Fascinating Rhythms, 2019.”
The New Florida Follies is a reincarnation of the Original Florida Follies, founded in 2000 by Cathy Dooley, the owner of a Margate dance academy.
By the time Dooley retired at 89 in 2015, the nonprofit dance troupe had raised more than $825,000 for children’s charities, including Family Central in West Palm Beach and the Children’s Diagnostic & Treatment Center in Fort Lauderdale, which will also benefit from this year’s five shows.
“We’re the older generation taking care of the younger generation,” says Emily Adams, the group’s president.
Five of the dancers are former Rockettes and most have danced professionally.
“We have one woman who’s 95,” Perlstein says. “She doesn’t do much dancing, but she’s up there. And we have a 90-year-old who does a split on stage. They applaud when she goes down, and they applaud even louder when she gets back up.”
The 95-year-old is Vivian Jeffers of Deerfield Beach.
“I used to race walk, now I do Zumba,” she will tell you. “I had a cancer scare a while back and I never missed a rehearsal.”
The 90-year-old is Cindy Trinder of Tamarac, who began dancing after high school in Oklahoma City and joined the Follies in 2006 as a mere 77-year-old. Thirteen years later, she’s still drawing applause with her show-stopping splits.
“I used to do acrobatics, but I had a little accident and lost the split,” she says. “I got the split back, but now I exercise twice a week and do some yoga when I have the time.”
Perlstein started dance lessons in Brooklyn. She was 3.
“Miss Frances and Miss Syd,” she remembers. “They had a neighborhood dance studio, and I was always a ham. My mother was a knitting instructress and I would come into the store and make everyone stop and see my latest routine.”
When she was in high school, the family moved to a chicken farm in Toms River, N.J., and she danced with Dave Rugoff and his Merry Makers. “We got paid,” she says, “once in a while.”
She married Morty, had three children, they became grandparents to five — and she never stopped dancing. In 2015, she joined the Follies.
“When I found out about the Florida Follies, I was so excited because there’s not a lot of opportunities for women our age to perform,” she says. “We go out and greet the audience after the show and they all say, ‘You make us feel so good.’”
Schlags grew up in suburban Detroit, where her mother would close her beauty salon, pack a lunch and take her and her brother into the city for lessons.
By 16 she was dancing with the Civic Light Opera of Detroit. She worked state fairs and club dates with the Miriam Sage Dancers and hit the big time in her 20s, dancing at the fabled Latin Quarter nightclub in Manhattan.
In 2001, she and her husband, Harvey, arrived in Highland Beach, the parents of two daughters and grandparents of twins. Widowed in 2010, she joined the Florida Follies and hasn’t missed a season since.
“I had a right hip replacement last June 4,” Schlags says, “and I was back with my walker in August, watching and taking notes, learning the routines. Then my right heel started hurting, so I went to rehearsals with my boot on. Everybody said, ‘You’re crazy,’ but now I’m back.”
She smiled. “I love the spotlight.”
Now it’s 2 p.m., and the spotlight is about to hit her.
Out front, about 450 men and women are patiently waiting, a crowd from the Follies’ generation. Their treasured dancers are Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, not Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson. Some have parked their walkers and wheelchairs against the side walls, and this is the moment at last.
This is why these 34 women have driven to Coral Springs for rehearsals twice a week. This is why they raised $50,000 to buy the costumes and rent the theater. This is —
Recorded music fills the hall, the curtain parts, the spotlight shines and a chorus line of glittering costumes, hot pink feathers and sparkling smiles kicks off to George Gershwin’s Fascinating Rhythm.
Marlene Perlstein taps her way through That’s How Rhythm Was Born, 78 years after she took her first lesson.
Jo Schlags dances A Salute to the Ziegfeld Follies so smoothly you’d never guess that she used a walker not long ago.
Shall We Dance is a salute to the six Follies girls who are 80 and over. Vivian Jeffers, 95, doesn’t dance, but she stands surrounded by her colleagues, dressed like the Statue of Liberty with torch — and head — held high.
And then Cindy Trinder steps forward to do her split.
The crowd applauds when she goes down, and they applaud even louder when she gets back up.
Out in the audience, Frank Rock of Boynton Beach is seeing the Florida Follies for the first time. A licensed massage therapist, he’s come to watch one of his clients, Nadine Alperin, 64, of Lake Worth.
“I’m just proud to know her,” Rock says. “They have amazing timing and their rhythm is amazing. Especially because of their —” He pauses, frowns, searches for an acceptable word. “Their seniorness.”
Two hours later, these old hoofers with young hearts have frolicked through 11 numbers, with Suzi and Steve Cruz, a singing couple, and the Flashback Four, a doo-wop group, providing the entertainment during costume changes.
The finale is another Gershwin tune, and by now the title is obvious.
I Got Rhythm.
Indeed they do. They got fascinatin’, toe-tappin’, high-kickin’, age-defyin’ rhythm.
The New Florida Follies have two more shows to go, March 24 and 31, and after the curtain falls on their final show, Cheryl Steinthal will give her dancers a month off. But by the end of April they’ll be back in Coral Springs again, twice a week, rehearsing for the New Florida Follies 2020.
Marlene Perlstein and Jo Schlags intend to be there.
“I have osteoarthritis in my left knee,” Perlstein says, “and when I thought I might not be able to dance I was very upset. But I take Advil. I would really miss a lot in my life if I couldn’t dance anymore.”
“My kids keep saying, ‘When will you quit?’ And I say ‘Next year.’ But I never do.”
And Cindy Trinder vows to keep performing her nonagenarian splits.
“I’ll keep dancing until I die, until something stops me,” she says.
“I’m not afraid of dying, but I want to feel good while I’m here.”
Artistic director Cheryl Steinthal will hold auditions for dancers in April. Applicants need not have worked professionally, but must have experience in tap and/or jazz styles. For info, call 305-596-7394 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You Go
When: New Florida Follies, 2 p.m. March 24 and 31.
Where: Countess de Hoernle Theatre at Spanish River High School, 5100 Jog Road, Boca Raton.
Tickets: $30 each, available by calling 305-596-7394, or at newfloridafollies.yapsody.com.