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Seniors Kick Up Their Heels for Cultural Day

May 23, 2006 – If you wondered what all that laughter and music was Wednesday morning in Frenchtown, worry not – it was about 200 or so senior citizens kicking up their heels during Cultural Day at the Frenchtown Community Center.
Sponsored by Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone and coordinated by the Human Services Department, Cultural Day is a way to entertain the folks in the department's senior programs.
May is Senior Citizens Month in the territory.
And entertain they did. The event started at 9 a.m. with storytelling, skits, and madras demonstrations and ran past 2 p.m., with time out for a luncheon.
Malone said, "I am so happy to do this. It's because of them that we do this. We have to pass on what we have learned. Without our seniors, opportunities that we have at our disposal may not have been attainable."
The large room was bursting with color, and madras ruled the day. The room reflected the island cloth, with tables decorated with madras headpieces. A row of island dolls in various madras dresses greeted one at the entrance. Red and yellow balloons were everywhere.
Irving"Brownie" Brown got things rolling with stories from the past. The crowd, which just kept swelling, was with him all the way. He asked, "Remember when it cost 25 cents to go to the dance?" With some giggles from the audience, "Oh, yes, yes we do."
"People think I have money," Brown said. "I don't, and I didn't then. We were poor people. Remember when three people shared an egg? When we were kids waiting outside the house, somebody would come by with some potatoes for the children." "That's right," the crowd nodded its agreement.
It was time for something a little different. Crucian Bradley Christian told the crowd of mainly women, but dotted with a few smiling men, that he had somebody all the way from St. Croix.
Thelma Louise Clark then took the stage. "You had better hold onto the lady next to you, because you won't believe what you are going to see when I do my thing," Clark said.
She immediately made good on her remark by stripping down to a bathing suit, displaying the figure of a teenager. "Now, I am going to show you about how we dressed," she said, donning one item after another, starting with a chemise and ending with a plain house dress and a straw hat. In between, she demonstrated an enormous whalebone corset.
Clark, it turns out is an 85-year-old retired educator. Speaking later, she was smartly turned out in what has to be a one-of-a-kind outfit: a finely made burlap tuxedo with tails, a vest, and red-and-white cotton striped lapels.
"My sister made me this outfit, but she died several years ago," Clark said. "I still like to perform," she said. "We had this group – the Alderville Jolly Group – and we would perform wherever we were asked, but most of us are gone now." But, she added with a grin, "I'm going to do something for Father's Day at the Island Center."
Christian, who is the Cultural Heritage Institute board chair, did some magic with madras. Calling up ladies to the stage, he turned a simple square of the material into elaborate headdresses, which the ladies paraded around the room to "Ohs and "Ahs."
Ruth de Gout Smith, Ms. U.S.V.I. American Classic Senior Woman of 2000, wearing her pageant ribbon, clearly was enjoying the event. "I love the camaraderie," she said. "There are some folks here older than I," she noted, but declined to give her age. "I remember when pot was a thing you cooked in," she said with a smile, "and grass was something you walked on. How things change." Though retired from her stage role, Smith says she keeps active advising young pageant hopefuls.
Another woman having a good time, wasn't about to share her thoughts with the whole world. "I'll tell you I am enjoying every bit of this," she said, "but I won't tell you my name. I don't want my business on the street. But," she added, "this is such fun."
Cheryl Plaskett, Human Services senior citizens program administrator, began looking a little nervous before lunch. "We had planned on having about 150, but look at this crowd," she said.
Indeed, the folks just kept coming and new tables were set up. After all was said and done, a hearty lunch was had by all.
Storytelling carried on with three Ivanna Eudora Kean students entertaining their elders with stories they had learned from Glenn "Kwabena" Davis. They learned more than the stories, they said; they learned how to tell them.
Davis is an integral part of the island's culture. In 2004 his work at Kean received the V.I. Humanities Council Heath Award for Excellence in the Teaching of the Humanities.
The folks wound up the day with dancing. The St. Thomas Heritage Dancers performed the quadrille, bringing the ladies out of their chairs and up to the stage to join in.
Malone said later, "This is the first time I've done this. I'm tired, but the day was wonderful. This is so important. We should be involved in our culture. The storytelling, the dancing, the Kean students, everything was so good."
Malone, chair of the Senate Education, Culture and Youth Committee, is active in efforts to preserve local culture. He was primary sponsor of the bill making quelbe the official territory music in 2004.
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