‘All She Wants to Do Is Dance’

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley


[James Borchuck | St. Petersburg Times]

When I talked to Thelma Neely on the phone for the first time, I could hear the excitement in her voice, could feel the passion she exuded for life, could sense how much she loved to dance. There was a story there waiting to be told.

So I met with 86-year-old Thelma and her 89-year-old husband, Archie for an article I had pitched to the St. Petersburg Times. I sat with them and looked at their photographs, met their big black dog, Teddy Bear, and listened to them play Archie’s favorite dancing song, “Black Velvet.” I watched them dance at the Czechoslovakian Cultural Center in Gulfport, Fla., and visited them again at their home on several ocassions. All for the love of the story.

Part of the challenge in seeing Thelma and Archie so many times was figuring out which notes to use. My Steno pad likes to hold more notes than it needs. I wanted to include everything. I wanted to include the details about the two Dominican nuns who Thelma teaches dance lessons to, and I wanted to include details about Thelma and Archie’s prayer ritual. Every night, they hold hands and recite the Hail Mary and the Our Father. “Pray together, stay together,” Thelma says. But I couldn’t fit everything into the story, so I boiled my story down to one word: survival. It was then easier to figure out which details were most relevant. Through dancing, Thelma and Archie have survived. In many ways, dancing has kept them, and their relationship, alive.

So, here’s the story, which ran in Saturday’s St. Petersburg Times. Let me know what you think.