Doris Tunney doesn’t even pretend to be offended when you ask how old she is.
“I’m 86,” she says proudly. “I’ll be 87 on March 26.”
Tunney is petite, with cinnamon brown skin, short, curly white hair and perfect posture. Dressed in denim capris and a long-sleeved cotton shirt, this octogenarian is ready to dance.
On a rainy Saturday morning, Tunney is among a half dozen women who have gathered at a community center in Seattle’s Central Area to work with veteran dance teacher Edna Daigre. The youngest student is in her mid-50s; Tunney takes the elder honors. She’s been studying with Daigre for decades. She loved to dance when she was younger.
“It made me feel like I was floating,” she recalls. “It made me feel so independent, made feel I could do anything I want to do.”
Keeping people like Doris Tunney in motion and independent has become Daigre’s mission. She and her son, Chris, also a Seattle dance teacher, have developed a program that combines Pilates-style breathing, isolated muscle movements, and other dance techniques that Daigre has taught over her long career.
Daigre is in her 70s now; she’s been dancing nearly as long as she’s been alive. She started at a community center in Gary, Indiana, at the age of 3.
Dance allowed her to express herself in a way that words didn’t. Daigre remembers dancing out nursery rhymes; the movement helped her learn and repeat the stories.
“I would have a speech problem when I tried to communicate,” she says.
She continued to study dance as a teen: calypso, Latin, and the contemporary technique of Katherine Dunham, which is rooted in African tradition combined with ballet and mid-20th century modern dance. Daigre adored it, but her parents discouraged her from pursuing a dance career. She went into health care instead.
In the early 1970s, Daigre moved to Seattle with her former husband, who was in the military, and their two sons. When the marriage broke up, Daigre and the kids stayed in Seattle.
“To me, Seattle was like the last frontier,” she says.
Culturally, nothing was the same as what she’d left behind in the Midwest. Different music, theater and dance styles.
Instead of bemoaning what wasn’t available, Daigre set out to recreate what she missed.
She went to talk with the artistic leaders of Black Arts/West, and the Central Area Motivation Program. With their backing, Daigre began to teach dance classes for teens. When budget cuts forced CAMP to end those classes, Daigre opened Ewajo Dance Studio. That was 1975.
“I named it Ewajo because it means ‘come and dance,’” she says.
The teenagers came; so did older people. “We started doing performances in different places like the library and Marymoor Park,” she says.
Some of Daigre’s students went on to pursue professional dance careers. Most, like Doris Tunney, simply enjoyed moving. Daigre says the community flocked to her studio. But in 2007, she closed Ewajo. Daigre was 65, her kids were grown, and she had grown a bit weary of the constant struggle to keep things afloat financially.
Most people retire at that age, but not Daigre.
She wanted to meld her dance and health-care backgrounds.
“I always had that health-body foundation. I know I wanted to keep dancing ‘til I was 80, 90, as long as I lived.”
Daigre also knew that, as she aged, she had to modify how she moved, and the way she taught older people to move. She was inspired by her own experiences.
“I had an accident that sort of immobilized me. I came back through a very simple technique of all this information that I had gathered for many years.”
Daigre wants older people to believe they can dance. “Dance has a bad stereotype. It’s for the young, it’s for when I get a little tipsy and a little loose.”
Back at the community center, none of Daigre’s Saturday morning students are young or tipsy, but midway through the class, they all are a little loose.
Infectious R&B music flows out of a simple boom box; the women twitch their hips and roll their shoulders to it, ringing a circle around Daigre.
Suddenly Tunney busts a move, and Daigre smiles and claps her hands, urging her other students to copy Tunney.
“This morning, I hated to get up,” Tunney says, looking out at the gray skies. But then she thought, “I’m going to see Edna, and Edna makes me feel good!”
Daigre herself is still a bundle of energy, barely breaking a sweat as she leads her students through their paces. Teaching clearly gives her joy; but dance is her central passion. She says it makes her feel free.
“I love being who I am at this point in my life,” Daigre smiles. “I can do just about anything.”