Vegas-style senior Follies to perform in Pittsburg
By Lou Fancher
After Kathryn Carterelliott's heart attack last January due to previously undiagnosed asthma, the doctors gave her an unusual prescription: To prevent future complications, dress in feathers and a leotard or fishnets and a tailcoat and hit the stage.
At 62, Carterelliott is a member of the The Black Diamond Follies, a troupe of performers age 60 and up who dress in Las Vegas, showbiz-style, or cross-cultural costumes and entertain people (including themselves) in the East County.
Led by Choreographer/Director Vince Aiello since 2005, the dancers will be joined by special guest artists, live musicians and more, Sept. 25-27 at the historic California Theatre. The downtown venue began operations as a vaudeville theater in 1920, making it a well-suited, elegant space to host Carterelliott and her companions.
"The first thing I asked my cardiologist after my heart attack was if it was OK to dance," the longtime Pittsburg resident says. "He told me, 'Don't stop.' There's nothing wrong with my heart as long as I keep moving as much as possible." Growing up in Pittsburg, Carterelliott had little opportunity to dance. "I'm a woman of color and there wasn't a lot of ballet out here regardless. Over time, my little girl dream lingered, but I decided it would never come true."
That changed after Carterelliott, a project manager for telecommunication companies in her "day job," signed up on a whim for a beginning ballet class at Diablo Valley College. Eventually, she discovered Aiello's adult education low-impact aerobics class for seniors and from then on, she was hooked.
"I'm not that size-8 dancer you think of, but Vince makes sure we never look bad on stage," she says.
Aiello brings years of experience in musical theater and dance to his craft and the class he currently teaches through city of Pittsburg Senior Services. Beginning the Follies to satisfy students' desire to perform at the end of a term, he says that once he figured out "choreography that didn't involve jumping or crawling on the floor," the path was clear. "We walk beautifully, parade like Las Vegas showgirls, get the core going, improve the self-image," he says.
The year-end shows bloomed into full evening acts, with Aiello adding magicians, stand-up comedians, live singing acts and local high school bands. With minimal props ("a ramp and staircase with a little glitz and glitter," Aiello says) and the women's headdress and costume designs that include bowlers, tuxedos, sequined gowns, capes, and more, Aiello insists, "There's nothing low-cut or distasteful. We explore femininity, being proud to be female, moving beautifully and gracefully. Over the years, they've learned how to portray an emotion or story through dance."
Carterelliott laughs at the memory of audience reactions to women performing while showing a little leg.
"It's interesting, even at our age, people have ideas about feminism and size-ism. We were handing out fliers once and one of the guys asked, 'Are we going to see topless women?' We're 60, 70, 80 years old. We looked at him like he was stupid. People are still stuck, even with women our age."
Instead of being perturbed, Aiello and Carterelliott champion the health benefits and the value of young people seeing that growing older isn't "the end of it." Besides, there's the group's signature piece, "Hello Dolly."
"I'm still stuck on 'Hello Dolly' as my favorite," Carterelliott says. "When you're in all those feathers, you become empowered. You stand up straighter. It's an opportunity not given to women our age and diversity."
Aiello says the song will be sung by a live male singer at the upcoming shows.
Special guest artists joining the group include Tonya Marie Amos, a professional dancer with an extensive resume in contemporary dance and musical theater. She is artistic director of Grown Women Dance Collective and the owner of Aspire Pilates Center in Concord, but what matters most to Aiello is nothing to do with business and everything to do with the biz.
"When she performs, she's versatile and tells her story. There's nothing better than that."