Dancing with joy

The Creative Side

At 81 years old, Betty McLain is a dancer, teacher, author, world traveler and an inspiration for her family and all those who are fortunate enough to know her.

I met Betty a few years ago at the Renton Senior Center when I signed up for one of her three dancing classes. After that, I was in the writing group she facilitated at the center, where I was enthralled with her fascinating travel memoirs. When we met up again recently, she said, “Every year I’m happier than I have ever been. I’m glad to be alive and healthy.”

A Puget Sound native, born in Tacoma, she learned to take care of herself from a young age, and claims she is stronger because of it. She married at 19 and raised two sons and a daughter. During that first marriage, she was a typical, submissive PTA mom — cooking and sewing for the family. It was in the days when the husband was deferred to, while the wife’s opinion was ignored. She said, “Then I met Smitty and my life changed.”

Her second marriage to Smith McLain freed her to become who she was meant to be. It all started when they dance roller-skated together at the Skate King in Bellevue. From that time on, she has danced her way around the world! Betty’s life story was turned into a play written by her granddaughter, Christine Longe, called “The Two-Step” that has been performed all over the United States, Canada and Australia and is presently in Seattle. “The Two-Step” explores how culture, memory and leaps of faith contribute to a life fully lived.

From roller-dancing, she branched out into ballroom dancing, and along with Smitty — between time spent building a house in Federal Way — they rushed to the Big Band Dances at the Seattle Center.

Eventually, she began teaching folk dancing, country-western and ballroom at senior centers throughout King County. She and her students have performed in Renton at the Carco Theatre, in assisted living homes and at the Renton Farmers Market. Once she instructed a class of 250 people at the Seattle Center on New Year’s Eve. At one time, Betty even taught Salsa, Meringue, Cha Cha, Fox Trot, Swing and Rumba dancing to an Amputee Advocates Group.

Her traveling days began because Smitty was an engineer in the United States Army Corps of Engineers. They were stationed in Germany and Saudi Arabia. While in Germany, she received the first of two Bachelor of Arts degrees while working full time. She told me her favorite was Saudi Arabia, which she says was an exciting place to live. Betty worked for the vice president of JECOR (a joint economic mission with the Saudis), and met high-level Saudi and American government officials, learning about Muslim culture. She was also the only western woman who rode on the local buses. She continued to dance there with a community of British residents. That tour was cut short when Smitty was stricken with colon cancer, which he has recovered from completely.

Back home, they sold their home, and in 1996, they decided to see if they could spend a year traveling around the world for less money than living in a Seattle apartment. And they did it! They traveled 33,000 miles while spending only $6,000.

“We dined on local food and relied on ferries and buses. We had already been to much of Western Europe, so we first went to places we hadn’t seen before. We only spent pennies while in India, Nepal, and Thailand, saving Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Russia for the end,” she said.

Betty’s travel stories include the challenges of border crossings through communist countries.

She has a photograph of herself riding an ostrich in Vietnam and camels in India. Besides her memoirs about her travel adventures, she published a book in 2010 called “Dancing in the Rain” (Lessons Learned from Unstoppable Seniors.) The book includes an anonymous quote, “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

She also credits her former student and dancer, Hugh Reeves with saying, “The only thing you can do wrong when you’re dancing is to not have fun.”

Betty hasn’t slowed down a bit. She had just returned from her annual Alaskan Dance Cruise with her students when she managed to find time to meet with me between rushing to teach dancing at the Pike Place Women’s Retreat on Vashon Island. Betty believes that both dancing and travel opens your mind to various cultures. Reading is also a passion, and she reads an average of about 60 books a year. She told me these days, she doesn’t waste time with people who are not kind. At the end of every dance session, the class has a group hug.

“So many seniors are alone, and this is the only time they get a hug,” she said.

If you’re interested, her fall dance classes start this month at the Renton Senior Center.

Betty can be contacted at bettysdance@gmail.com.

The author, Jaris English can be reached at Silverpen45@gmail.com