At 86 years young, this local dance teacher won’t let age determine when the music is done.
If it weren’t for her big brother, Joan Lichtenberger might never have set foot in a dance studio.
More than 80 years ago, Joan’s mother had enrolled her young son in a tap class to help the boy overcome his awkwardness, but it was three-year-old Joan who impressed the dance instructor.
“I’d be in the back of the room doing all the steps,” Joan recalls. “The teacher told my mother, ‘You’re wasting your money on your son. Get your daughter in here.’ My brother, who has since passed away, was definitely not a dancer.”
Decades later, Joan is still a standout on the dance floor. The 86-year-old is a line-dance instructor at the Casselberry Recreation Center, the Winter Springs Senior Center, and other local venues. She also taught at the Lake Mary Senior Center for several years.
During Older Americans Month 2019, which was observed in May, the City of Casselberry honored Joan for her creative contributions to the community.
Linda Moore, Casselberry’s recreation manager, says she appreciates Joan’s willingness to give back by sharing her dance expertise with other seniors.
“Her message to stay active and have a purpose in life – no matter how old you are – is inspiring,” Linda says.
Joan, who was born and raised in Queens, New York, took tap and ballet classes for several years as a child. She adored dancing and would have continued, but World War II brought a gasoline shortage that prevented her mother from driving her to class.
In high school, Joan resumed her studies with a modern dance class and once again made the instructor take notice. Her teacher arranged for the teen to study at the famed Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York City for a year, at no cost to Joan’s parents.
After graduating from high school, Joan opted to enter the workforce rather than attend college. She worked her way up from the mailroom to corporate accounting positions. In her free time, she studied ballroom dancing and became a dance instructor at yacht and golf clubs on Long Island.
Joan moved to Central Florida in 1980 with her husband, Chuck, and their children. Chuck, who passed away in 2004, shared his wife’s passion for dancing and spent countless evenings twirling her around local dance floors.
In 1988, Joan was introduced to line dancing at the Sanford Senior Center and was soon teaching classes at area venues. Although line dancing is commonly associated with country-western music, Joan and her pupils kick up their heels to a variety of tunes. Her class playlist includes upbeat Latin numbers, Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” and “Music to My Eyes” from the remake of the movie A Star Is Born.
Most of her students are women ages 60 to 90-plus, and many are widows, just like Joan. Her classes, which are open to all skill levels, provide opportunities to exercise, keep the mind sharp, and connect with others.
“They’re not sitting at home,” Joan says of her students. “They’re out doing something that is fun, and they’re socializing, which is very important.”
Julie Trujillo, manager of the Winter Springs Senior Center, says Joan’s classes provide a sense of community, which helps combat the isolation that many seniors feel. Joan also goes out of her way to encourage newbies when teaching them the dance steps.
“She is young at heart, and her energy is contagious,” says Julie. “Joan also has a great sense of humor, and she isn’t afraid to be a little sassy. Her students always leave with smiles on their faces.”
When Joan isn’t teaching, she still finds reasons to dance – whether to broaden her own repertoire or to simply cut loose with friends. Most Saturday nights, she can be found line dancing at The Barn, a country music venue in Sanford.
She has attended line-dance workshops in Orlando, Las Vegas, Atlanta, and other cities and has traveled as far away as Ireland to hone her skills with master choreographers.
“I love dancing and teaching and hope to do so as long as I can,” says Joan, who also performs for free with her pupils at community events and assisted-living facilities. “It makes you feel happy to be moving like that.”
When Casselberry staffers recognized Joan at the city’s Older Americans Month event on May 8, she and a group of her students jumped up to entertain the audience with their fancy footwork.
“It always amazes me to see her perform with such enthusiasm,” Linda says. “And, the fact that she looks at least 25 years younger than she really is makes me want to take up line dancing.”
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