SEAL BEACH, Calif. — Esther Luskin heads to the front of the room, lifts her arms to the side and sways to the Hawaiian music. She masters the movements for “I love you,” “sweet cheeks” and “ocean waves.” As she twirls, her navy blue and white mini-dress flows with her.
Hula dancing is Luskin’s latest challenge. The 91-year-old has been dog-sledding in Alaska, rafting on the American River and motorcycle riding in the Caribbean.
All after she turned 85.
“I never sit down,” Luskin said. “I just keep moving.”
Luskin started dancing as soon as she could stand. She tapped, clogged, can-canned and sashayed through classes and performances in her native Pennsylvania. Now she goes to hula class every Monday at Leisure World in Seal Beach, Calif.
“Well, gotta learn that, too,” she said. “It’s never too late, right?”
Jojo No’eaukalehua Weingart recently moved from Hawaii and started teaching the hula class. The dance makes Luskin “feel like an ox” because it’s new, she says. But the tiny woman with fuschia lipstick and cornflower blue eyes moves more like a bird.
Weingart writes the name of the classic hula “Papalina Lahilahi” (I love you sweet cheeks) on the dry-erase board. Luskin moves to the front of the room to show the others how to move their hips.
“She’s doing good, she’s having fun,” Weingart said. “We all strive to be like her.”
Luskin came close to dancing for a living. When she was 16, a producer asked Luskin to move to New York City and become a professional dancer.
But her father wouldn’t let her go.
“I would have loved it, but I was his precious daughter and he just didn’t want me to leave him,” Luskin said.
That early disappointment led to a lifetime of making up for it.
Luskin performs weekly in dances, movies and parades at Leisure World. She dresses up as a clown and visits hospitals. She acts in local plays. This November, she’s going on a cruise, but she doesn’t know where it will dock. And it doesn’t matter, because fun follows Esther Luskin.
Luskin and her late husband, Morris, always dressed up to go dancing — cowboy hats for square dancing, formal wear for ballroom dancing. They entered dance competitions on cruises, racking up awards along the way. They had a motorhome and a boat for cruising, and they traveled to Europe and Asia.
When Morris died nine years ago of complications from diabetes, Esther kept dancing.
“I don’t do ballroom dancing, but I do all the other dances because I don’t need a partner for them,” she says.
When Luskin isn’t dancing, she’s walking around Leisure World in her hot pink or turquoise shorts and silver slip-on shoes. She has a golf cart, which she decorates for parades, but always prefers to walk.
“She’s got great legs,” said Fred Holzer, 81. “Where else would you find a woman over 90 wearing miniskirts and walking down the street?”
The phone rings often at Luskin’s apartment. Mostly it’s family, her three sons or three grandkids. But she also gets calls aimed at seniors. One wants to sell her a spot in a nursing home. Another tells her about a water aerobics class for arthritis sufferers.
“I don’t need ‘em!” Luskin says loudly each time after hanging up.
Luskin doesn’t have arthritis and she doesn’t use a cane, although she once used a walker decorated with streamers and flowers. But that was for a dramatic role.
She doesn’t like playing cards. Or dominoes. Or talking, much. If it doesn’t involve moving, it’s not for her.
That’s why if there’s a party or a dance, Leisure Worlders know to invite Esther. She’ll often decorate a cake for the occasion. One birthday cake — for her husband — was in the form of a shapely woman in a bikini. Another, for her son’s co-workers at Coastline Community College — was the size of a poker table.
And not just cakes, but costumes. Luskin’s Halloween get-up one year was a big black trash bag with “WHITE TRASH” written in masking tape. Her photo albums show her alternating from a flapper dress to a cowboy hat or clown costume.
On trips to visit children and veterans in the hospital, Luskin becomes a clown named Tiny Boots. Puppets and stuffed animals sit in a row on the back of her couch, waiting their turn to go along.
But it’s dancing that keeps her going. She skips Friday night temple because it interferes with dance class. Her datebook fills up quick with invitations to socials.
“She won’t quit dancing,” says John Turner, president of the hula club. “Anytime there’s a show of any kind she’s right there.”
Luskin’s enthusiasm inspires her grandchildren. On a return trip from Hawaii three years ago, Luskin and her two grandsons were caught in the back of a long line at the check-in counter.
“My cousin was telling everybody, ‘Let us to the front of the line, make way for this old lady,’ ” Casey Luskin, 26, recalls. “We all knew that even though she’s 89 and flying on a six-hour plane trip, she was probably healthier than anybody else in line.”
Others let the threesome go straight to the front of the line. There they shared a good laugh knowing that Luskin is anything but old.
“I feel about 15,” she said. “I’m never gonna grow up.”
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