She Puts Pep in Your Step
Instructor Jackie English in the front leading the line dancers at the Culver City Senior Center
By Sandra Coopersmith
You'd think someone with "English" as a surname would be destined to teach language and, in a roundabout way, that's just what Jackie English does. After all, line dance has a specific vocabulary that uses choreographed steps to communicate its message – get up, get moving and, above all, have fun.
So, if you're a senior who's ever sat on the sidelines wistfully watching others line dance, yearn no more. The delightful Ms. English, whose exuberant laugh would make a great ring tone, will have you on your feet and executing snappy, synchronized maneuvers during her twice-weekly two-hour classes Mondays and Fridays at 2:30 p.m. at the Culver City Senior Center, a venue committed to keeping its members active physically, mentally and socially.
Her classes, a bargain at only $2, fill the bill on all three counts and average 50 people who range from novices to line dance teachers. Her oldest student is 94, and several have been with her for years.
After retiring from the U. S. Postal Service in 1992, English, a dancer since childhood, started looking for a form of exercise that would appeal to her. A friend told her about a line dance class being held at the home of Wayne Taylor, who had converted his garage into a dance studio.
"It was exactly what I was looking for," she reminisced. "I met a wonderful group of people and made new friends that are still friends and now students of mine today. I went to classes all over Los Angeles and the surrounding area. When Wayne decided to retire he asked me to take over all of his classes which were being held at his studio, Willowbrook Senior Center and St. Andrews Park."
One of her students at Taylor's studio worked for United Airlines, which "was looking for entertainment for 'Fantasy Flight,' their annual event for underprivileged children. Two members of the committee came to the studio to interview us and asked if we would participate. The day we walked into the terminal, 15 dancers dressed alike in red cowboy hats, the chairman of the committee was so overwhelmed he started to cry. We danced with them and for them. This was done right in the middle of everyday business in the United terminal the first Saturday in December every year, and we were involved for 15 years."
In 1996 English started as a substitute teacher at Culver City Senior Center and ended having her own class. At one time, shuttling between numerous venues, 13 hours per week were spent teaching. "When I looked at that picture I said, 'Something's wrong here, I'm retired!'" she laughed. She currently teaches at two senior centers, Culver City and Westchester, aggregating five and one-half hours per week.
On August 17, 2013, a group of line dancers called "The Team" recognized her, along with other line dance teachers, for having taught 10 or more years. The group was chaired by her former student, Natalie Kelly, who is now a line dance instructor. At least five of the honorees had been taught by English.
"One foot kicking and one foot dragging the ground . . ."
No, that's not a description of a befuddled first-timer but the lyric to one of the songs on a line dance playlist that contains a variety of popular music styles: country, pop, swing, rock, disco, Latin and jazz.
"There are thousands and thousands of line dances and more being choreographed every day," English said. "Selecting the ones to teach sometimes can be daunting. It humbles me to know that my students trust and respect my selection."
Those students include Judith Cohen and her husband, David Katz, who have attended the Culver City Senior Center classes for about five years.
"I have been dancing in classes like this for decades but David has been dancing only for these five years," Cohen said. "But we both love this class. The music is great and the teacher is fun. While I learn the dances, David, who has two left feet, does whatever he feels like to the music. And no one minds. And Jackie appreciates David's enthusiasm and lets him pick some dances the class should do!
"His favorite dances are 'Alligator Walk' and 'Remember the Night.'"
"It's a soulful, joyful class," added Katz.
Marian Silverman says she "needed to put some happiness into my body after dealing with chronic health issues for years. Although I work out with cardio and weights every morning, the line dancing lifts my spirit and well-being to a new level. Even though I'm a beginner I see the benefits building each week. And research tells us that learning new dance steps gives our brains plasticity in order to have a young brain Bring it on!"
And English does, keeping her dancers on the move in more ways than one. "We've danced in parks, malls, halls, centers, schools and churches," she said.
1998 even included a Hawaiian adventure.
"June Sumida, one of my students, has a sister in Hawaii who put her in touch with a line dance teacher there," said English. "We contacted a travel agency, made flyers and took 50 people to Hawaii to dance. The dancers in Hawaii welcomed us with open arms and we danced at venues all over the island, including the Palladium. where the Hawaiian dancers organized a big party for us attended by approximately 140 dancers."
For several years she and her students danced for the American Cancer Society's Relay For Life. Last year they danced at Fiesta La Ballona and "engaged the crowd to participate with us by teaching them a few dances."
English described hosting a "Christmas in July" line dance party at Westchester Senior Center this year, with all proceeds going to buy toys and food baskets for the children and families at Fred Roberts Recreation Center in Los Angeles. "It was well attended and we plan to do another one in December for the same charity," she said.
"We love to dance; give us a charitable cause and we will dance," she added. "Some of our other charities have been Firemen's Fund in New York after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and Children's Hospital in Los Angeles. The line dance parties to benefit the charities were held at Westchester because of its central location for dancers coming from all over the Southern California area, and were hosted by the Westchester and Culver City line dance classes."
English knows how to keep her cool.
"One day at Culver City Debbie (Cahill) told me we were having guests," she recalled, "but when I pulled out my iPod to start the class it was dead as a doorknob. We started to scramble. Some of the students had CDs in their cars, Debbie had a CD player in her office and some of the students had iPods with the music I use for class."
Since the visitors were 15 young people from Japan participating in a Sister City program with the senior center, English decided to teach "Good Girl" aka "A Little Blurred," a dance she thought they would enjoy that is choreographed to "Blurred Lines."
"'Blurred Lines' was current and the young generation was playing it all over the world," she explained. "One of my students said it was on her iPod but when I put the music on, it was the dirty version, not the one I play in class. But I give credit to the class; they kept dancing as though everything was in the proper order. When the guests left we had a big laugh about Murphy's Law. What can go wrong, will, and that day it did!"
If line dance has a life lesson to impart, it probably incorporates her exhortation to "Keep the rhythm!" and is inspired by lyrics like "We're gonna make this day a little better than the last."
Five, six, seven, eight . . .