Still dancing and teaching at 91

Theresa Landry does the Castanet Dance.

The tap dancing feet of a group of teenage students at Theresa Landry’s studio.

Theresa Landry teaches a pre-schooler to tap dance here.

In less than 20 years, a quarter of the state’s population will be older than 60. In a series we call “The Silver Boom: Aging in Rhode Island” we’re looking at how the state will take care of this expanding older population and how it can benefit from it. Rhode Island Public Radio’s Lydia Rogers introduces us to Theresa Landry, tap dance instructor.

91 year old Theresa Landry stands in front of a large mirror in one of the five dance studio rooms doing a few moves on the wood floor before her next class arrives. She’s a petite woman dressed in black pants and a black shirt.

She is the owner of the Theresa Landry School of Dancing in Pawtucket. Two days a week in her second floor studio she teaches tap dancing. Her students, who are much younger, range from 3 to 16 years old.

Landry has been teaching tap in this same room for almost 60 years. But she’s taught dance almost her entire life. “Well I started at 10 years old. My father made me a roll-up platform. And I had a little wagon, and I put the platform in there and I’d go house to house to teach so that I could get 10 cents per lesson. So I’d have one student on the Monday after school, one on the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. And I would make at least 50-cents a week.”

A few years later, while kids her age were still busy being kids. Landry set up a dance school in Central Falls. So not only was she really young, she also was one of the first females to start a business in Central Falls. “When I first opened I saw a little store that was open for rent. And I thought ‘oooh. I wonder how much he’d want? Because now I’m ready. I’m 13 going on 14. Maybe they could rent it to me for one day and I’d do all the teaching there. But when I went to rent it from this Mr. Whalen, he said “you gotta give me one month ahead of time.” I said “oh but I don’t have any money. But trust me. I will pay you on time somehow.’ So he did trust me. I was the very first woman (to open a business in Central Falls). They didn’t trust us women because they thought we’d get pregnant.” She laughs. “Well I did get pregnant after 2 years of my marriage. But, I danced to my 8th month and then I went back 6 weeks later. So there was nothing lazy about me!”

By the time she was 18, Landry had 100 students a week.

Landry has traveled the world, she’s been to Europe, Russia, Cuba. And while her roots are in Central Falls, she’s originally from Canada.

“I was born in Canada. I came here in a truck of potatoes. My mother knew that if she had two children on her lap they’d send her back at immigration. So seeing that I was only 2, she buried me in the potatoes and just left my little head sticking out. And she said that I liked the vibration cuz I slept all the way through it. I was a good baby. So she got across the immigration because she only had one child on her lap. If she would have had me in front also, in the front of the truck with Dad, they would have sent her back. The law then was you could get into the United States with one child.”

On a recent day in her Pawtucket studio, Landry gathers a group of young students. One 15 year old student who has been coming to the studio since she was three told me that Landry is a great teacher and always up and dancing.

And 10-year-old Princess Dahn can’t believe that her teacher has clocked some 90-plus years.
“I was like ‘How could she be that, that old and still teaching kids?’ She’s great, awesome. She makes me understand the things she wants me to do. She, like, teaches me in a fun way. It’s great.”

When The Theresa Landry School of Dancing puts on recitals Theresa herself works out the choreography as well as designs the costumes. “I design them, from the time I was a kid. I have a pad. And I must have been looking at movies when I had an extra 10-cents, because if Ruby Keeler came out with a costume: oh we had to have something like that! Then Eleanor Powell who was the world’s best female dancer, we had to have a costume like her. And then there was Anne Miller. So if I could get the dime to go see the pictures it would give me a great idea of what to do. Take a skirt from one, a sleeve from another, a bodice from another.

You might think that someone who has been dancing for more than 80 years would be ready to stop. Not Landry. “Well I don’t want to quit, because I would like to hang up my shoes and travel some more. But like I say, this is a therapy. And with me I’m happy to teach 2 days a week cuz it’s my therapy to keep my body going and my mind. At 92 I’m happy I can get into my car and drive to my business.”

Theresa Landry turns 92 in November, but at this point who’s counting? Landry credits a couple of things for living a long and active life.”Well I don’t feel sorry for myself. I push. I really push. I’ll take that hot bath, hot and cold shower every day. Doctors say to me when they look at the paper (showing date of birth) ‘I don’t believe what I’m seeing. You mean you take care of yourself? You take your own bath? You do your own washing? You do your own housework?!’ I say yes I do. I don’t feel sorry for myself. I push. So at night I bless myself and say heeeere goes another day. Let’s go Theresa! Move it and that’s the way I live. I’m blessed.”

Theresa Landry credits her active, dancing, lifestyle for keeping her so healthy and in great shape for her 90-some-odd years.

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