Members of the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies during a nursing home visit. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Dancing Grannies.
Members of the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies during a nursing home visit. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Dancing Grannies.

When it comes to touring, Taylor Swift’s got nothing on the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies, who have overcome devastating tragedy to resume bringing joy wherever they go. 

What started as part of the aerobics boom of the ‘80s has transformed into something much more powerful over nearly four decades.

“Somebody asked the instructor of that aerobics class if their class could do a demonstration in a parade, and it happened to be a senior class,” said Dancing Grannies president Jan Kwiatkowski. “They did it, it was a lot of fun and then they got asked to do more demonstrations. And then from there it just morphed into, ‘Hey, this is really fun. We could get costumes and poms and create our own routines and do parades on our own.’ So the group sort of evolved organically from there.”

Today, the gyrating gaggle of about 30 grandmas from the Milwaukee area traverses Wisconsin to bring its dance moves to parades and, most recently, nursing homes such as Kenosha’s Brookside Care Center. Dancing Granny Kathy Gladfelter says it makes it easier on residents who may have trouble getting to one of their parades. 

“The people are so happy when we show up and we always start out by saying, ‘We know a lot of you can’t get to our parade, so we’re gonna bring the parade to you’ and they just love it,” Gladfelter said. “We have people stand up, we say, ‘You can sing along, you can dance along.’ We just make it real open and fun.” 

While the Grannies are not short on joyous energy, they have endured great tragedy the last few years after members Virginia “Ginny” Sorenson, 79; Leanna “Lee” Owen, 71; Tamara Durand, 52; and Wilhelm “Bill” Hospel, an 81-year-old group helper whose wife was a member, were killed after a man intentionally drove through Waukesha’s 2022 Christmas parade

Coming back to the dance floor, be it on a city street or inside a nursing home, may have a cathartic effect for members.

The group stands strong going into its 39th year of existence. For members like Kwiatkowski, this resilience is a product of the bonds the Grannies created between themselves. It is easier to keep on dancing when you have some friends behind you, or to the side of you or even in front of you — whatever a routine calls for.

“Together, whether it’s the Grannies or whether it’s you, the residents, your family or the people around you, it takes community to keep on going,” said Kwiatkowski. “Nobody heals alone and one step at a time and whatever that step is for you, you keep going. It doesn’t have to be fast but it’s important that you keep going.”