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The Garage Sisters dance their way to Walt Disney World

By Staff | Mar 3, 2010

The Garage Sisters, a tap dancing group from Sanibel who recently performed at Walt Disney World, is comprised of members age 65 to 80. They include Sally Cawthra, Delores Conte, Andrea Gainer, Jeanne Hamilton, JoAnn McKelvey, Ann Packman, Bette Read, Pat Santucci and Barbara Showalter.

Walt Disney World is widely regarded as a place where wishes can come true, for both the young and the young at heart. In fact, earlier this month, a group of Sanibel full- and part-time residents – collectively known as The Garage Sisters – traveled to the Orlando theme park complex with the hope of making their dream come true.

That dream, according to several members of the tap dance group comprised of seniors age 65 and up, was to perform in front of a large audience at Walt Disney World.

And after more than two years in the planning process, on Feb. 15, their dream finally came true.

“We wanted to do something in honor of Delores (Conte’s) 80th birthday,” said Jeanne Hamilton, one of the 10 active members of The Garage Sisters. “We started the group dancing in her garage.”

“Back then, her garage just had a concrete floor,” added fellow dancer Barbara Showalter. “Then we put down some plywood, which worked much better. Her husband came in one day and called us ‘The Garage Sisters.’ The name just stuck.”

Backstage at the Entertainment Rehearsal Hall in EPCOT, members of The Garage Sisters pose for a picture with Goofy.

The group, which also includes members Sally Cawthra, Andrea Gainer, JoAnn McKelvey, Ann Packman, Bette Read and Pat Santucci, had been dancing together for several years before performing at a castle in the United Kingdom in 2007. However, they aspired to something greater.

“Somebody said, ‘Let’s go to Disney World!’ and that started the ball rolling,” said Hamilton, who contacted the guest relations coordinator at Walt Disney World. They were referred to the company’s Performing Arts division, which only offered entertainment workshops to school groups and youth organizations.

“They never had a group of senior citizens that were interested in doing this,” added Hamilton.

But after submitting an application, a DVD copy of one of their performances and a phone interview, The Garage Sisters were granted permission to attend one of Disney’s Performing Arts Workshops and an opportunity to show off their toe-tapping talents in front of a live audience.

For five weeks prior to their performance date, the group worked with choreographer Bobby Logue, longtime dance instructor and veteran of several productions at The Herb Strauss Schoolhouse Theater and BIG Arts. He was charged with putting together a 20-minute performance which the ladies would execute at the Waterside Stage, located at the Downtown Disney entertainment, shopping and restaurant complex.

“I’m beamingly proud of every one of them,” said Logue, whose choreographed repertoire for the group included “42nd Street,” “Give My Regards To Broadway,” “Shim-Sham-Shimmy” and “Theme from The Pink Panther.”

Getting together for three to five practices per week (on available rehearsal space at The Schoolhouse, Recreation Center, BIG Arts and the Sanibel Community House), many of The Garage Sisters’ dancers said that by the time they hit the stage, they had the routine down flat.

“We listened to those four songs over and over again, all the way up to Orlando,” said Cawthra.

“We’re all a bunch of hams,” added Conte. “By the time we went on, we knew the numbers so well that we didn’t have time to think about it or get nervous.”

All agreed that their 20-minute spot went by far more rapidly than they had expected. But what they didn’t expect was the reaction they witnessed from the audience.

“Everybody from that crowd was smiling and clapping along with us,” said Conte. “At the end, some of them yelled, ‘Woo-hoo!’ They couldn’t get over what we were doing.”

“I saw some of these young kids, and when they saw us tap dancing, their jaws just dropped!” said Hamilton, who noted that due to their success, Disney is encouraging senior groups to apply for their performing arts workshops.

“It felt great being on that stage,” added Cawthra. “When I first came to Sanibel, I had always wanted to learn to tap… but it took me two years to get up the nerve to do it.”

With their Walt Disney World experience now behind them, The Garage Sisters are already looking at bigger and better things to conquer.

“We’re looking at doing a TV talk show, or something else on TV,” said Hamilton. “This thing has kinda got a life of it’s own. We don’t want this to be the end of it.”

Logue, who regularly works with the group on their dancing skills, added that he is very proud of The Garage Sisters for what they have already accomplished.

“I’ve work with professional actors and dancers, and I’ve never seen such focus and dedication that these women have shown me,” he said. “I see their progress every day and know they work very hard. There’s nothing that they can’t do.”