WORDS Liesel Schmidt
IMAGES courtesy Marian Conrad
First with Jazzercise and then with the meteoric rise of Zumba, dance cardio has long been a trend that gets people not only moving, but dancing, enjoying the rhythm of music as well as their body’s ability to move. But the fast-paced atmosphere isn’t for everyone—nor is the large group setting. Sometimes, a closer camaraderie is sought, something that will foster closer relationships and engender a sisterhood. For women like Joyce Wolf and Renae Hughart, the idea that dance could be both a means of fun and exercise, as well as a way to engage with their communities and give back, ultimately gave rise to the creation of their very own group, called Bordertown Belles.
“Our first meeting to discuss even forming a dance group was held in January of 2018,” says Joyce, the co-leader of the Belles along with Renae. Several members knew Marian Conrad, Executive Director of local nonprofit, Project Compassion; and, after hearing about their group, she approached them about dancing for long-term care residents as part of their recreational programs. “We decided we wanted to try it, so we started meeting and practicing dances. We had our first performance at Chapel Ridge Health and Rehab in March of 2018, and the rest is history,” Renae says.
With seven members, Bordertown Belles comprises women from several towns in the River Valley, including Fort Smith, Van Buren, Branch, Greenwood, and Lavaca. What makes the group so unique is the concept behind it: Performing for the residents of twenty-six long-term care facilities served by Project Compassion. “The women of the Bordertown Belles love visiting with residents, seeing their smiles, and hearing their stories as they share memories about school dances or waltzing at their wedding. The performances spark joyful memories of sock-hops and barn dances they attended long ago,” says Marian Conrad, who has been booking the Belles as entertainment at area assisted living, retirement, rehab and nursing homes since the group started.
What their audiences receive from their performances is their greatest driving force—not to mention their greatest reward. “Music is magic,” says Marian. “Music and movement together engage both sides of the brain; and familiar tunes, lyrics, and rhythms spur people to clap, tap their toes, dance, and sing along. For them, it’s all very emotional and heartwarming.”
Renae concurs. “There’s always lots of energy, laughter, and smiles when we perform, both from the Bordertown Belles and the audience. Every performance is a blast, and we usually go away chattering about what a great time we had and the impact we made during the performance. We’re constantly working on new dances and coming up with new costumes for future performances. Being with the Belles is fun, and dancing with them is something I hope I can keep doing for many years.”
“We all love to dance, and the joy we see in the residents’ smiles is so rewarding,” adds Joyce. “They love to participate by clapping and singing along, and we’ve even had them get up and dance right along with us! It’s an incredible experience for all of us and a wonderful thing to be a part of.”
Naturally, the women had some dance skills in their back pockets when they joined the Belles. “Several of us had previously been on a line dance team and wanted to get involved in dancing again,” says Renae.
That, combined with their desire to do something special for the people in their communities, has created an amazing dynamic and a friendship that transcends simple teamwork. That close-knit bond is what makes them magic, what gives them an ability to reach people in the way that they do. Dance after dance, performance after performance, they enjoy one another’s company and consider one another friends. “We all love the dancing and just being together with women with the same interest who are also very compassionate,” says Joyce. “We have formed a great friendship and enjoy being together outside of dancing. They are like sisters to me.”
Renae adds, “All the ladies on the team have such positive attitudes and very friendly, outgoing personalities. Each has a caring heart and wants to use our dancing to entertain and bring happiness to others. I love getting together each week with the ladies on the dance team, either for practice or a performance. We all respect and care for each other. We’ve formed a special friendship that started with our common interest in dancing and volunteering. We all want to stay active, and dancing is a great way to do it. It’s fun, and it keeps us young!”
More than just dancing, the Belles create a true experience for their audiences by choreographing each dance and adding seasonal themes so that they bring their very best to each performance. The result is captivating and something that brings contagious joy. “All these women are volunteers who do this after work, and give their time each week to practice, create their routines, and coordinate their fun outfits and props,” notes Marian. “They are an energetic, fun group of friends who simply want to give back to those who have given so much in their lifetime.”
“As part of this group, they have as much fun as the residents do, and it is meaningful for them to give back to our local facilities as part of the Project Compassion mission. The Bordertown Belles and all our unique, engaging programs are especially needed now, after residents experienced so much isolation during 2020. Our core program of one-to-one visitation is in high demand as most facilities have reopened to welcome outside visitors again. In 2022, Project Compassion will celebrate fifty years of service, continuing the legacy of the late Gloria White, who worked tirelessly to see that nursing home residents had companionship.”
For the dynamic women of the Bordertown Belles, the proof that they are making a difference comes from the residents for whom they perform. After being on hiatus during the unprecedented challenges of a worldwide pandemic, receiving such love and appreciation now is valuable beyond measure. “These incredible women give their time and talent but feel they are blessed in return ten-fold” says Marian.
Project Compassion is an agency of the United Way of Fort Smith Area, which covers six counties in the River Valley. For more information on Project Compassion, the Bordertown Belles, or to volunteer, call 479.783.2273, or email email@example.com.