GARY — When Maxine Simpson hears songs like “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars and the smooth crooning tones of Luther Vandross, she’s tapping her feet and popping her fingers, and soon on the floor dancing.
Simpson, 65, of Gary, is an expert. From the time she was a little girl, Simpson has loved to dance, sometimes choreographing her own routines with her friends on the block.
“We would dance in the streets,” she said. “I love all music especially R&B, jazz and gospel.”
Today, Simpson teaches a line dancing class at the Gary Neighborhood Services Center, drawing students from across Northwest Indiana to learn the steps for the exercise and camaraderie. Line dancing is exactly what it says. It’s where people dance to steps in a line, rather than as a couple.
Simpson and her group, The Jazzy Ladies and Gents, founded in 2010 travel throughout the Midwest and across the country meeting up with other line dance clubs to dance and fellowship.
But there were a few stops and stalls in her dancing career over the years as Simpson pursued other dreams.
Simpson went to college in 1971, but she laughingly said, “it would be decades” before she completed her bachelor’s degree in business administration. But once she earned that degree, Simpson obtained a job as a paraprofessional in a special education class in 2001 in the School City of East Chicago, where she continues to work.
Simpson worked at the Budd Co. in Gary for 10 years until it closed in 1983. It was also in the 1980s that Simpson started square dancing in Chicago and “promenaded” across the Midwest during that decade.
“While I was square dancing in Chicago, I met people who were doing Chicago-style stepping, and I started taking classes over there,” she said.
Chicago-Style Stepping, also known as Steppin’, is an urban dance that originated in Chicago and continues to evolve. Steppin’ is rooted in the traditional African-American originated dance movements of Lindy Hop, which evolved into Swing Dancing. Its birth and unique rhythm was born in the 1970s when Disco and the New York Hustle was burning the social dance floor and seen in movies and television across the United States.
The popularity of stepping continues, particularly in the urban neighborhoods of America such as Gary, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, Simpson has dabbled in real estate and owned property throughout the city of Gary, renting it out. Simpson owned a Dairy Queen in Gary and operated it 10 years. She also has two children, a daughter and son.
In 2004, Simpson had a mild heart attack and doctors told her to slow down.
“The doctors said I had to give up something because I had too much stress,” she said. “My son was in the Air Force at the time, and my kids didn’t want me to reopen the Dairy Queen after I recovered. I figured maybe it was just God’s will.”
Unbelievably, Simpson said she sat around the house for two or three years not dancing at all. In 2008, she said she saw an article in the paper about free stepping classes in the Miller section of Gary.
“I was only working for the school system then,” she said. “I was sitting around and I was gaining weight. I was becoming a couch potato.”
Simpson said she went to check out the classes and joined, teaching stepping and line dancing classes a year later.
“I love to dance. It’s great exercise,” she said. “I get joy out of seeing the other ladies and men enjoying themselves, getting out of the house and meeting other people.”
Simpson’s classes at GNS are $5 per session for the two-hour class every Tuesday. She teaches a free hourlong stepping class at the Gary Public Library’s Kennedy branch on Wednesdays. She also volunteers for the East Chicago 4H Club and she works with Gary’s True Church of Jesus Christ food pantry.
Each month, Simpson hosts a birthday potluck where the Jazzy Ladies and Gents celebrate the birthdays in that month. She also sponsors trips to the movies and to plays.
On any given Tuesday when you walk into the multipurpose room at GNS, the participants are laughing and talking about their days. Simpson generally begins without the music, first teaching the steps before asking participants to try it out with the music.
Claudia Thomas, 42, and Deborah Abram, 59, both of Gary, have been taking the classes for years.
“It’s so much fun,” Thomas said. “It’s like having another family. I get to meet so many new people. There are hundreds of line dances. I don’t know them all, but I know enough to get by on the dance floor.”
Abram said she’s been dancing since high school and belonged to a modern dance troupe.
“My passion is dancing and exercising. It makes me feel good, and I enjoy the activities and events that we attend,” she said.