LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The Washington Wizards have a new dance squad this season - Wizdom. It's made up of performers 50 and older. And it has been a hit at basketball games in Washington, D.C. NPR's Samantha Balaban caught their latest performance.
SAMANTHA BALABAN, BYLINE: Christopher Johnson is a 53-year-old special education teacher. But right now he's dancing alone backstage at D.C.'s Capital One Arena next to some large industrial equipment and an ice resurfacer. Johnson is the only male dancer on Wizdom. He heard about the team last summer from his daughter but was reluctant to try out. Everyone in the ad looked old.
CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Like real, real old. They looked old. And I was like, I don't want to be on the team. And they called us, like, at the senior citizens' team. I can't get it in my mind that I'm a senior citizen.
BALABAN: But Johnson ended up being surprised.
JOHNSON: It has been an unbelievable experience. And at this age, the energy level that I have and to be around people who share that and celebrate that - it's phenomenal. You know, many times, younger people are always celebrated, and old people are pushed aside. And so for once, the older people get the spotlight.
DERRIC WITFIELD: All right, here we go - ready.
BALABAN: As the game - Wizards versus Bulls - is about to start...
WITFIELD: One, two...
BALABAN: The dancers gather to rehearse their routine a couple more times.
WITFIELD: Shake what your mama gave you. Move. One, two...
BALABAN: About a dozen NBA teams have senior dance squads. Wizdom dances at home games about once a month. They have a new choreographed routine to learn for each performance. Some members are former cheerleaders. Some use sedans for professional sports teams. One is a bodybuilder. And some have never danced professionally in their lives.
WITFIELD: Come in. OK, let's fix this diagonal.
BALABAN: They might take a little longer to warm up and make more jokes about age-related pains than other dance troupes. But Derric Witfield, the team's choreographer, says, make no mistake. They're good.
WITFIELD: They're very well-rehearsed. They perform with a lot of energy, a lot of charisma, a lot of style. They're just entertaining to watch. And people - the audience can just get behind them because they are so good. So it's not just, oh, that was cute. It's, wow. Like, they really can dance. And that's what we want. So I - you know, we push them to the limit in practice to really make sure that, you know, they perform as a professional dance team because they are.
BALABAN: Witfield says 50 or 60 people tried out for the team, and it was hard to choose just 20.
WITFIELD: They were all good. But, you know, it was important that we picked the right people - especially for the first year - who were passionate and dedicated and just wanted to do this and had a bigger reason for doing it than just the glitz and the glam. And that's, I think, what has made the team so successful.
LENORA WILSON: I'm Lenora Wilson, known as Nana. I am 76.
BALABAN: Nana is the oldest member of Wizdom.
WILSON: And in my interview, initially, I said I just wanted them to be able to say, you go, Nana.
BALABAN: A few years ago, she couldn't have imagined being here.
WILSON: I was kind of laying around, having a pity party because I lost my husband eight years ago. And I lost my mother two years ago. And in between, I had brain surgery. So I had gone through a lot. But, anyway, then I got my new Wizdom family.
BALABAN: Nana says it's been a blessing.
WILSON: This has really lifted my spirits. It really has. And one thing we have in common - we go through our aches and pains together. Anybody have Tylenol Extra Strength?
WILSON: Give me three.
BALABAN: Then it's time. The dancers put on their sequined track jackets - red and blue - and line up courtside.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the court, the Wizdom.
BALABAN: The dancers all have huge smiles. Their joy is infectious the whole time they're on the court. And for the finale, Christopher Johnson flawlessly executes a flip and a split, and then it's over.
WANDA NEWMAN: (Crying).
WILSON: Oh, sweetheart.
BALABAN: Sixty-five-year-old Wanda Newman bursts into tears. Wizdom is only performing one more time this season. And Newman, who is a recent-ish retiree, can't be there.
NEWMAN: It's been a great ride (crying).
BALABAN: Newman says she'll miss the camaraderie the most. But she and Nana, who are hugging each other backstage, already have plans for the dancers to stay in touch.
WILSON: We're going to have a cookout at my place in May. We're going to have a pool party at someone else's house in July, so we're going to to keep this thing going. You know, we're going to just continue to stay together. And we're going to keep working on our moves so that we're ready for the next audition come September.
NEWMAN: So we pray that we'll make the next audition.
BALABAN: Wizdom will continue next year. It's been successful and warmly received by the fans. Nana, who will turn 77 soon, says even if she doesn't make the team next season, she's learned a valuable lesson.
WILSON: I've learned that you just need to get up and do something...
NEWMAN: Mmm hmm.
WILSON: ...And just try to spread the joy everywhere.
NEWMAN: Mmm hmm.
WILSON: Mmm hmm.
BALABAN: Samantha Balaban, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKE YOUR GROOVE THING")
PEACHES AND HERB: (Singing) Shake it, shake it. Shake your groove thing. Shake your groove thing, yeah, yeah.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.