Monday, May 17, 2010

At 88, she got up off the floor to dance again


Posted: May 14, 2010 (5) Comments

Move over, Betty White.

Octogenarian Sara Shipe of Grafton - she's 88, same as Betty - gets the spotlight now.

White is coming off last week's wildly successful hosting job at "Saturday Night Live." Agreed, she was fabulous and funny.

But Shipe - who may be to ballroom dancing what White is to comedy - is no slouch, either. Topping off months of recovery from multiple pelvis and elbow fractures, she donned a sparkling dress and her dancing shoes and fox-trotted her way out of a Cedarburg rehabilitation center last month.

"It felt pretty good after lying in bed all that time," she said.

Now she's back to weekly dance lessons at Fred Astaire Dance Studios in Mequon and working out again with a personal trainer.

"I'm not quite there yet, but we're getting there," she said of her old dancing form.

Shipe took up ballroom dancing just two years ago and did well enough in a Milwaukee competition last December to win a championship trophy for an age group of dancers up to 25 years younger than she.

Shipe's daughter and fellow dancing student, Susie Rugg of the Town of Grafton, said that during that same period, her mother overcame a stroke, breast cancer surgery and radiation.

"And all this time, she kept dancing," Rugg said.

Shortly after winning a trophy for her "smooth" dances - the waltz, tango and fox trot - last December, Shipe took a spill while hauling a case of soda from her garage into the house where she lives independently. Her daughter was alerted by Shipe's personal trainer, who said Shipe didn't show up for her usual three-times-a-week workout.

The news wasn't good.

Shipe, who said she was on the garage floor for about an hour, doesn't remember much. But her daughter said she was in a lot of pain from elbow fractures and two fractures in her pelvis. She couldn't walk, let alone dance. She was hospitalized for a while and then spent three months at Cedar Springs Health and Rehabilitation Center.

Brooke Engelhart, therapy director at the center, said a therapist caught on to Shipe's interest in dancing and used that for motivation. And wouldn't you know? A new certified nursing assistant at the home, Jacob Schwanz, had been a Fred Astaire dance instructor and knew Shipe from the Mequon center.

Schwanz, 21, happily agreed to dance with Shipe on her last day in rehab, even if he wasn't scheduled to work that day. Rugg brought in her mother's outfit - a white gown glittering with crystals and small-heeled dancing shoes - and fixed her hair and makeup. She looked as glamorous as, well, Betty White.

Then, in front of staff, other patients and family, the pair of Schwanz and Shipe stepped out for the 90-second turn on the dance floor.

"It was really inspiring," Rugg said.

But that's her mom.

Shipe, mother of four, was a teacher and elementary school principal in Pennsylvania before retiring. Ten years ago, she moved to Grafton, near her daughter, needing a lift in life.

Rugg, who's been a gym teacher, dance team coach, diver dreaming of the Olympics, mother of two, homemaker and, currently, a psychotherapist, set an example. She turned to dancing first.

Rugg, 62, said she was overweight and a longtime smoker who finally took a look at herself five years ago.

"I said, 'That's it!' I declared food my enemy and threw away my cigarettes. I refused to die a chubby old, frumpy woman."

Rugg began to dance, hired a trainer and lost 55 pounds, so far. She's gone on to national competitions twice, she said - taking third place in rhythm dance routines last year behind two 18-year-olds who took first and second.

Shipe said after watching her daughter - "she looked so good" - she decided to do the same thing. She describes her daughter as "a lot better, more agile." Rugg returns the compliment, saying her mother is "extremely graceful," but someone who can "put on the ham" for applause, too.

"Dancing with the Stars" is must-see TV for these two, and Shipe bragged that she danced with Tony Dovolani - one of the show's professional dancers who this season was paired with Kate Gosselin.

"I was better than she," Shipe said, and who's to argue? Gosselin and Dovolani were booted from the mix last month.

As if to warm up to the challenge of overcoming broken bones, Shipe and Rugg both recalled a near disastrous accident at a dance competition earlier in 2009. Shipe caught her heel in a hallway rug. She tripped and flew up against a wall, cutting her forehead and requiring 33 stitches.

"This woman's crazy!" Rugg said, recalling how her mother danced the next day anyway.

"She said, 'Maybe I'll get some sympathy votes for it,'" Rugg recalled.

So the show - and the dance -goes on.

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