Dancing grandmas putting Gary on the map

2011-09-25T00:00:00Z 2011-09-26T01:00:06Z Dancing grandmas putting Gary on the mapBy Lauri Harvey Keagle lauri.keagle@nwi.com, (219) 852-4311 nwitimes.com

Walk into Lois Jackson's home in Gary's Glen Park neighborhood on Wednesday evening and you know you are among family.

The cackling of mothers, grandmothers and wives in the living room can be heard from the porch. The smell of a turkey roasting in the oven greets you at the door.

Then the music starts and these family women are transformed into The Whitney Nots, a synchronized, lip-syncing ensemble of dancing grandmothers who perform to Motown and doo wop hits across the country.

Lois Jackson founded the group in 1993, while trying to help a male friend going through a difficult divorce.The women took him out dancing and to see Gary's own Billy Shelton of The Spaniels perform.

"We used to go out to the Khaki Club (at the Radisson) when Billy was there to pick him up and dance," Jackson said.

The friend moved on and later contacted Jackson with a request.

"He said I've met the love of my life and I want you to perform at my wedding reception," Jackson said.

Whitney Houston was popular at the time, as was the term "Not!"

"We said we could be the Whitneys but we can't sing so we called ourselves The Whitney Nots," Jackson said. "...We always tell our crowd we don't sing, but we do like we used to do, get a broom handle, a mop handle, a paper towel roll and sing."

What was supposed to be a one-time gig 18 years ago has turned into a nationally touring dance ensemble. The Whitney Nots are comprised of friends Elaine Cuthrell, 53, of Gary; Lynne Trask, 49, of Highland; Sharon Phelps, 55, of Gary and Jackson, 54, of Gary.

The four women perform all over the country, doing synchronized dances in the style of 1960s Motown and doo wop singers. 

The women coordinate their outfits, from their wigs and jewelry down to their sequined pantsuits and shoes. They change costumes to fit the theme or era of the songs, including large hoop earrings, dashikis and afro wigs for "Got To Be Real."

"Groups don't get dressed up anymore," Jackson said.

The women admit they have had a few wardrobe malfunctions. Jackson remembered the women telling her to put her wig further back on her head before going on stage and during the performance "felt a cool breeze" as her wig fell off.

"The audience just cracked up," she said.

The women joke that Jackson is like "Inspector Gadget" and always has whatever you need on hand, from pins for costumes and hair to the more practical needs of a grandmother.

"If you need a diaper, you can yell, 'Lois! Where's your purse?' and she has it," Trask said.

When people see the women out together dressed exactly alike, they often wonder if they are famous.

"Here we are, we're walking down Hollywood Boulevard and 'Dream Girls' just came out," Jackson said.

The women were dressed identically and someone in a passing car yelled out "Dream Girls."

"I said no, we're the Dream Girls' mamas!" Jackson said. 

Jackson said she knows what it takes to put on a good performance that will keep the audience engaged.

"You're got to have pitch, pace and power in a routine or you'll lose them," she said.

Jackson said the women tried to put the modern dance The Dougie into a routine which was met with great reviews.

"We try to keep it fresh," Jackson said. "We're grandmas. We're not going to be vulgar."

The women call Whitney Houston's "I'm Every Woman" their signature number and feel the lyrics fit their own lives. 

"We're wives, we're mothers, we take care of our religion, we take care of our families," Jackson said. "We fight, we throw shirts at each other."

"We eat and we drink," Trask added with a laugh.

"But that's how come 'Every Woman' is special to us," Jackson said. "When you've got a job, a family, it doesn't stop, it doesn't end."

The women have been through births, deaths and everything in between together. They admit they sometimes argue and fight, but the love between them never fails.

"That's family," Jackson said.

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