Wearing matching glittery unicorn hats, rainbow tutus or white furry boots, a troupe of 30 senior women have built a reputation across Southern Florida with choreographed dances to pop songs. Called the “Calendar Girls,” the dancers aren’t professionals, but put on 130 shows per year — and do their own makeup and styling from YouTube tutorials — under the rigorous direction of 71-year-old athlete Katherine Shortlidge.
Their lives are the focus of a new documentary that traveled the festival circuit and comes out in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles, among other cities, this month.
In “Calendar Girls,” Swedish filmmakers Maria Loohufvud and Love Martinsen follow the group as they navigate a stage of life that can be misrepresented in popular culture: With their children grown up and careers winding down, they’re looking for a new direction. Through performing, some of the women get more comfortable in their skin, wearing over-the-top outfits and sparkly makeup they might never have previously worn, pushing themselves physically and creatively, and focusing — perhaps for the first time — on prioritizing themselves instead of others.
“(Their) transformation was very interesting,” Martinsen said in a video call. “You don’t think about it that much, but you continue to change your whole life.”
Some found the dance group by chance: Nancy, a former police officer who retired early due to degenerative hearing loss, joined up after watching the troupe perform at a mall and seeing a chance to express a different version of herself.
“We’ve been talking about this film like it’s a coming-of-age story, but a coming-of-golden-age story,” Loohufvud added on the same call.
The directors, a married couple, filmed the dance troupe over the course of two years after encountering the Calendar Girls at an event while on vacation with their children in the Fort Myers area.
“They started to dance, and it was so fascinating — we couldn’t stop watching. It made us happy,” Loohufvud recalled. They reached out to Shortlidge, who founded the group over a decade ago, for an initial interview, but didn’t expect to film a documentary on the subject.
As they spoke to more troupe members, they were moved by how much dancing had impacted the women’s sense of self. The filmmakers wanted to represent a different view of life after 60, one where that put the dancers’ personal relationships and dedication to their practice into focus. Some of the women struggle with health diagnoses, partners who don’t support their nontraditional decision to dance, and working past retirement age. Being part of the Calendar Girls gives them a system of support.
Loohufvud pointed out that many films often don’t take women above a certain age seriously. “Many of them tend to make fun of the character, like it’s so funny that a woman over 60 wants to be sexy, for instance,” she said.
Martinsen added that films also don’t tend to value their current experiences. “Very often (the story is) about their past lives. It’s not about their present life.”
Through the Calendar Girls’ performances, the women raise money for Southeastern Guide Dogs, an organization to assign trained dogs to veterans. Shortlidge said early on in the film that the group has given her a new sense of purpose.
“This will be 14 years of my life I’ve done this — there’s nothing in it that I regret,” she said. “I love to perform. I love the idea of serving my community… We’re not just old broads out there dancing around — we’re doing this for a reason.”
Add to Queue: Women, reframed
Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, is behind one of the year’s buzziest new podcasts. She’s brought on a roster of guests that includes Serena Williams, Margaret Cho, Issa Rae and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau to dismantle the reductive labels assigned to women, such as “good” or “bad” moms, the stereotypes of the “diva” or “angry Black woman,” and the double standards of ambition.
Art critic Jillian Steinhauer wrote for Believer magazine about the art world’s tendency to “discover” women artists in the last years of their lives. “The best way to succeed as a woman artist is to be old. Not necessarily dead yet, but with the specter of death hanging over you…” she wrote. “Preferably you’ve been making art for a long time, and it’s either been gathering dust in your home, rarely if ever shown, or is exhibited mostly in alternative and educational spaces… You’re a safe bet at the same time as you’re a discovery.”