Jacquie Murdock, 84, has been dancing her entire life.
It's just past 11 a.m. on a Thursday, which means that Jacquie is in a small room on the second floor of the Beatrice Lewis Senior Center in Harlem beginning warm-up exercises with her class. Jacquie works out twice a week with the Jazzy Randolph Dancers, a senior dance troupe composed of professional and amateur dancers in their 60s, 70s and 80s.
Men and women in leg warmers, leotards, baggy T-shirts and dance shoes move their bodies in rhythm to the Indian music playing on a CD player and stare in concentration at the instructor who demonstrates from the front of the room.
“Demi. Straight up. Demi. Straight up. Two. Straight up. Three. Straight up,” calls out the instructor.
Jacquie's legs rise and fall just a hair behind the instructor's words. The intense concentration is evident in her face.
“Point, close. Point, close. Plie.” says the instructor.
Jacquie stands in the back of the room, clothed in a pink “I Love New York” T-shirt, cream colored sweatpants, and a pink and white Nikki Minaj trucker hat which she picked up at Kmart.
She is grateful to have a free class to practice in, but the room is a challenge. Jacquie lost most of her sight 15 years ago from glaucoma and cataracts and is legally blind. She can sometimes see out of her right eye, depending on lighting conditions.
Today is a lost cause. The bright sun streams through the windows that make up an entire wall, blinding her with an intense glare. Two other walls are filled with mirrors. They are helpful for checking one's dance form, but horrible for Jacquie's sight. She is accosted by light or the reflection of light from multiple angles.
“I can't see with the sun. The glare from the sun is just impossible,” Jacquie says.
She's frustrated but is adapting. She has positioned herself in the back of the room so that she can follow the form of a dancer in front of her. Jacquie can't see the woman's features but can make out a shadowy foot.
This is not her favorite position to be in; Jacquie dislikes being in the back of any room.
“I was on a mission from an early age to be recognized,” she says.
Jacquie was born in 1930 in Harlem to a middle-class family and grew up idolizing the glamorous Hollywood stars Marlene Dietrich and Lana Turner.
“They weren't just beautiful. They were strong career women and I said when I grow up, I'm gonna be like that.”
She dreamed of being in show business. Jacquie's affinity for glamour, paired with her love of music, made a career in dance seem attractive.
Jacquie was barely five years old when she announced to her parents that she wanted to be a dancer. Horrified, they tried to distract her by giving her piano lessons. It didn't work. They tried sewing lessons but it only fueled her passion for fashion.
Naturally tall, she dreamed of running off to Paris to be a runway model but didn't want to disappoint her parents by leaving. She realized that she already lived in one of the most exciting cities in the world, where countless performers reached their goals.
“I was just a little girl from Harlem with a dream. I used to say I was going to be somebody. I didn't know then that I already was somebody,” Jacquie says confidently.
Jacquie sees herself as a star—“a celebrity”—and won't let anyone tell her otherwise.
An artist friend and admirer created and gifted her with a life-size mannequin of her stage persona, “Tajah.” It stands in her foyer, dressed in an elegant black evening gown, dripping with jewels. It is a constant reminder of the dreams she has accomplished and the fame she still reaches for.
Jacquie has had personal and professional success, including raising daughter Pat and son Michael, and dancing in venues all over the world, including the Apollo Theater in Harlem during its heyday.
But she's also had failures. At age 40, her marriage crumbled. Desperately needing money, she wanted her agent to book her for dancing gigs but couldn't because of her pregnancy.
“I had a new baby. I was broke. It was the worst year of my life.”
Her dreams of dancing had to make room for a new 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job as an administrative assistant in New York University's computer science department. But she embraced it and adapted by continuing to dance on the weekends and during holidays.
Throughout her life Jacquie always dressed up for the glamorous life she envisioned for herself, never wearing jeans or “ordinary” outfits.
She was—and still is—frequently stopped on the streets by admirers of her distinctive outfits. Knowing the strength of self-promotion (and with no agent) she always introduces herself as: “the legendary dancer from the Apollo” and often carries promotional materials. She wants to build a website but without the technical skills and with limited sight, the project has been stalled. She's talked about signing up for extra acting work in movies but hasn't actively pursued it.
Jacquie got a break at age 80 when a photographer from the blog Advanced Style, which celebrates stylish older people, spotted her walking in Union Square and asked to take her photograph.
“I said, 'For what?' He said, 'I have a website for stylish elders.' I said, 'Yes, but I'm a professional and I'm a legendary dancer from the Apollo Theater and if you use my picture without my permission I could sue you.' I then told him that the jacket I was wearing was from Paris, and I just threw my hands up in the air and said, “Ta dah!,' and he started taking pictures.”
A 2012 book and 2014 documentary of the same name followed, as well as media promotions, including an appearance on The Today Show. Jacquie soaked it up, pushing herself as much as she physically could. In May 2014, she self-financed a trip to London for Advance Style's London premiere.
“I have to leave my legacy,” she says.
Meanwhile, Alber Elbaz, of the French fashion house Lanvin, was looking to cast “regular” people in his ad campaign, and Jacquie was on his radar. Before she knew it, she was in a Chelsea studio wearing an emerald peplum dress and trying to balance in high heels. The photos were unveiled in July. In October, Kim Kardashian wore the same green dress from Lanvin; Jacquie thinks it was because of her influence.
Photographs of Jacquie soon appeared in Marie Claire (Hong Kong) and she was interviewed by the German, British and Russian media. She was in early talks to do a makeover reality show, but it was never made.
The fame never materialized into much financially—she wasn't paid for Advanced Style and wasn't paid much for the Lanvin campaign—but she tries to think of the publicity as currency.
“It's ok. I got the international recognition. I have a lot of fans out there,” she says.
Jacquie had hoped to book more modeling jobs after the Lanvin spot, but hasn't been able to parlay it into more recent gigs. At the beginning of 2015 she adds “find a modeling agent” to her list of goals. By mid-year, with other priorities on her mind, she's let that dream go.
For the past few years Jacquie has been writing her autobiography, on-and-off, but put it on the back burner for Advanced Style and the Lanvin campaign. She also hit technical issues. Because of her sight, writing on the computer is difficult. She got speech recognition software a few years ago, but finds it inaccurate. She prefers to write on a typewriter but doesn't have one.
As she creeps closer to 85, the realization that she may not have much time left in this world upsets her. She's at peace with dying, but not without completing her book, her legacy. It's given her a deep sense of urgency.
She plans to self-publish it through NYU's bookstore. She hopes to travel to college campuses to share her story and inspire young people to follow their dreams.
“I was just a little girl from Harlem with a dream. It came late but it came true.”
“Move those arms! Hip. Hip. Keep going. There you go,” says the dance instructor.
The dancers are now congregated on the right side of the room with the Black Eyed Peas' “I've Gotta Feeling” beating through the room. They move across the floor, arms outstretched, rolling their hips as they alternate tapping and stepping with their right foot and then left foot. Jacquie is up last. She moves across the floor gracefully but with some stiffness.
“Can you give me a little hip bump there Tajah. Let's do it Taj. Hip Hip Hip. Stretch out those long legs.”
Jacquie finishes and the instructor changes the CD to an Indian song. The dancers move across the floor windmilling their arms as they do a drag step. Jacquie is in the middle of the pack and completes the movements with relative ease.
The dancers make a few more passes back and forth across the room. On the third pass Jacquie's movements are more labored. She's tired. Halfway across, she gives up and finishes the pass by walking.
“Taj. You're doing fine. Can you keep your arms in the opposite direction? Taj?”
She continues walking.
The group assembles again on the right side of the room. The instructor demonstrates a new step, alternatively crossing both her arms and legs, and then extending them out to form an X. The dancers follow her across the floor.
“Cross. Out. Cross. Out. Cross. Out,” says the instructor.
Jacquie starts strong but by the second pass has slowed down. Her movements are half a beat behind the music.
The music changes to a spirited Latin number, a genre Jacquie loves, and she picks up energy. At the end of the group sequence the instructor encourages the dancers to “freestyle.” When it's her turn to solo, Jacquie lights up. Soaking up the spotlight, she draws energy from “yeahs!” and “alrights!” directed at her and happily twirls across the room.
The instructor turns over the class to Ajaibo, the director and choreographer of the Jazzy Randolph Dancers, and a seasoned dancer at age 80. He was Jacquie's partner in several performances in the 1950s.
Jacquie pushes through for a few more sets but soon grows tired again. Her legs seem stiff. Ajaibo steps in to correct her form. She tells him she's too fatigued, but he encourages her to continue.
“I thought I was done after the last dance, but Ajaibo said I wasn't done. I guess I'm not done,” she says.
A new number begins. As the dancers begin, she stands in the back and bends over, stretching her legs in exhaustion.
She makes it across the floor one last time, but has reached her limit. She tells Ajaibo, and walks over to a nearby seat.
“This is too hard,” she says. “I have to watch it.”
Jacquie is worried about her heart. She has had palpitations and has been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, which leaves her feeling weak and dizzy at times. As much as she wants to complete the class, she just can't.
She watches the rest of the class from the sidelines, frowning in frustration.
“When I see them doing it, I want to do it too.”
As she says good bye to Ajaibo and the dancers, she shakes off her disappointment.
“Life is hard and you have your ups and you have your downs. I just have to take it day by day.”
She'll have class and another opportunity to dance again next Tuesday. The thought that one day her body may not allow her to is pushed far back in her mind. She says she can't think that way.
What she is thinking of is her book. She plans on making an appointment with the NYU bookstore to inquire about the steps she would need to take to publish it. She needs to find that typewriter. She needs to ask permission from Lanvin to use her photo on the cover. She needs to continue writing.
“(I pray to God): Please let me finish my assignment down here before you call me up. Please let me finish my book.”
Jacquie leaves class, takes the elevator down to the first floor and prepares to navigate her way home.
This series is a production of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health. It is led by Dorian Block and Ruth Finkelstein. It is funded by the New York Community Trust. To find all of the interviews and more, go to www.exceedingexpectations.ny
More About This Series