Never too old for spirit fingers

By: Alanna Dvorak
UNC staff writer
The Durham VOICE

Five cancer survivors.

Three hip replacements.

Two knee replacements.

Nine back surgeries (from one member).

These are certainly not your average cheerleading stats, but then again, the Durham Divas ‘n Dude are not your average cheerleaders. After all, the age range of its participants is 57 to 85.

The Divas pose for a group photo after performing at the RBC Center in 2009. Pictured left to right are Front row: Davesene Lawson (Flyer), Jeanette Webb, Liz Cofer, Shawnte Wright (Coach), and Louise Gooch (Organizer and Captain). Second row: Edna Thompson, Bertie Bates, Lillie Cannady, Mildred McKinney, and Mary Walker. Third row: Dreda Guion, Betty Reed, Tina Scruggs, Edna Titus, Shirley Lassiter, and Ann Gore. Last row (right side of picture) Lucille Bethea and Vivian Gentry. (Photo courtesy of the Durham Divas 'n Dude)

The Durham Divas ‘n Dude were founded by Louise Gooche in February 2004. Gooche, an ambassador to the North Carolina Senior Games, recalls she was attending a training session for the event in Wilmington in October 2003 when she saw a group of senior citizen cheerleaders performing.

“I thought to myself, ‘We can do that,’” said Gooche. However, Gooche says she was initially hesitant, thinking that no one would be interested but herself. But after posting a sign-up sheet at the Downtown Durham YMCA where she volunteered, nine women signed up immediately. Currently the Divas have 20 active members and have had to start a waitlist for others interested in joining.

The Divas secured Shawnta White, an aerobics instructor at the Y and a former cheerleader, as a coach. White, who was only 28 when she started coaching women twice her age, started out too easy, according to the Divas. That didn’t last.

“Gradually, the ‘grandmotherness’ went away,” says Gooche, with a laugh, remarking at how rigorous the workout now is.

“I think she forgets we are senior citizens,” added Ann Gore, a member of the Divas since its inception and the group’s oldest member, at age 85.

The Downtown Durham YMCA offered immediate support after Gooche pitched the idea of a senior cheerleading squad. The YMCA allows the team to practice at the facility free of cost. The group practices twice a week, usually for an hour or 90 minutes. The YMCA also provides the group with uniforms, pompoms, and other accessories, including hats, scarves, and warm-up suits. When travel is out of the immediate area, Durham Parks and Recreation also supports the group by providing transportation.

In October 2007, Gooche convinced one of her co-workers from Durham Tech to come out, and Ed Moore became the first and only male member of the group.

The Divas currently have a performance schedule of nearly 30 events, ranging from holiday parties to charity events. But their bread-and-butter is the North Carolina Senior Games.

The Senior Games are divided into two levels, the local level and the state level. The games are also part of a national event. Each state hosts senior games for citizens 55 and older. North Carolina has the largest number of active participants, at over 3,000.

The games are divided into three categories and from there, various subcategories. The first category is “Silver Arts,” and incorporates performing, visual and literary arts. The second category is sports and encompasses a wide range of activities from team sports to individual sports. The third category is cheerleading.

The events are yearly, with the local games held in the spring and the state event held in the early fall. This year’s state games were held in September, and the Divas won silver.

Although none of the women had cheerleading experience prior to the Divas, the group has thus far accumulated one bronze, two silvers, and three golds at the state games.

“It’s never too late to do what you want to do,” says Gooche. “You’d be amazed at what your body can still do.”

Beyond competition, the Divas act as a support network for its participants. They have been there to support each other through medical issues and deaths of loved ones.

“We pray together every practice before we exercise and stretch,” said Gore.

The group never wastes time feeling sorry for themselves, however, says Gooche. They just keep on going.

The team already has three events and the senior games scheduled in 2011 and shows no signs of slowing down. The Divas have already upped their performances by adding cartwheels, pyramids and splits and plan on further expanding the stunts they do. Their next event is the Durham ArtWalk on Nov. 20.

Gooche offers the Divas mantra to anyone worried about getting old: “You don’t stop playing when you grow old; you grow old when you stop playing.”

3 thoughts on “Never too old for spirit fingers

  1. Gosh, I would never have thought of this! I was captain of my cheerleading squad in high school back in the 80’s and now that my daughter cheers for the Chapel Hill Tigers I can’t say I haven’t felt a pang of jealousy every now and then. It brings me back…

    I want a 40’s squad. How fun!

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