For a year, the Interlakes Senior Citizens Center in Madison was dark and silent on Friday evenings. Last week, though, for the third week in a row, a band was on the stage and dancers again took the floor.
"Because of COVID, we stopped," said Marleen Swenson about the weekly dances she helped to organize as a member of the dance committee.
For Swenson, who learned to dance as a child going to dances where her dad played in the band, the weekly gatherings were one of the highlights in her social life. Although arthritis prevented her from dancing, she enjoyed chatting with folks she had known for years and with new people who attended.
However, last spring when the health risks were weighed against the pleasure the gatherings provided, only one decision made sense. From the beginning, senior citizens were hardest hit by the pandemic. As of April 14, the United States reported 545,751 deaths, according to statistica.com. Of these, 438,706 or 80.1% were age 65 or older.
As early as March 2020, the CDC was reporting this pattern. As of March 16, 2020, 4,226 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in the U.S. Of these, 31% were age 65 or older, and 49% were age 55 or older. Of the 121 admitted to an ICU, 53% were age 65 or older. Of the 44 who had died, 35 were age 65 or older.
Wise decisions in the face of the public health threat had their own ramifications, though. Swenson reported that without the weekly gatherings, loneliness took a toll on the seniors who self-isolated as a health precaution.
"I've been trying to be careful," Swenson noted. "I haven't been out at all."
The outlook has changed in recent months as COVID-19 vaccinations have become more available. The state Department of Health reports that 54% of the state's population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccination.
After spiking in November and December, the number of active cases in the state has more or less plateaued, although there was a slight increase in March. In Lake County, this was evident at the end of March when 67 active cases were reported on March 26. Four weeks later, on April 23, that number had decreased to 23.
In response to those changes, the ISSC dance committee decided to listen to the message they were hearing from regular attendees and begin hosting dances again.
"Everybody wanted to come dance again," Swenson said.
When dances resumed, the losses were clearly evident. Some who had attended regularly had died; others were not able to attend because they had entered nursing homes. Swenson herself had lost a dear friend during the intervening months.
In resuming the dances, the committee isn't so much concerned with health risks as with financial concerns. They take the precaution of screening those who attend and no longer serve the potluck lunches which were so popular, substituting store-bought cookies. However, attendance is down.
"Getting started again is hard," Swenson indicated. "We need more people to come."
On Friday, many of the chairs surrounding the perimeter of the floor, chairs which once held resting dancers, remained empty between numbers. That won't pay the bills.
"We need more people," said Earl Junker, president of the dance committee, as he paused between dances. With more women than men in attendance, and a goal of ensuring all feel welcome, he rarely sits out a dance.
The group charges an admission fee of $7, which helps to cover the cost of hiring a band. However, when only a couple dozen people attend, that doesn't cover the costs and the committee must draw the difference from its small account.
"I'd hate to have to quit," Swenson said, but that might become necessary if attendance doesn't pick up again.
She recognizes that some people are still hesitant about going into group situations. Madison is among the forerunners in holding dances again.
"Sioux Falls hasn't started their dances. Brookings hasn't started yet, either, but we were ready to do it," Swenson indicated.
She smiles when she thinks of the pleasure people derive from getting together and dancing to the oldies. The weekly dances draw people from other communities, including Mitchell, Sioux Falls, Brookings and Pipestone. While many come ready to take the floor, some come initially to socialize.
Swenson related the story of one woman who came with some friends just to watch. When asked to dance, she would decline.
"She would say, `I don't dance. I don't dance." Pretty soon someone talked her into it," Swenson said. Since learning to dance, she's on the floor for nearly every dance.
Because Swenson sees the pleasure that people derive from attending the senior dances, she is hoping attendance will pick up as people feel more confident about getting out. Not only do the weekly gatherings offer folks an opportunity to get a little exercise, they also help alleviate the loneliness.
"The friendship is such a wonderful thing we have," Swenson said.