Dolly Scott’s up at dawn, unsure and nervous about applying fake eyelashes and suggestive makeup, and preparing for her first day of championship ballroom dancing.
“I look like a hooker on Fifth Avenue,” she says from her hotel room in Orlando, seemingly more concerned about the dramatic getup than the eight hours of shimmying she’ll have to endure. Donning a Caribbean-blue dress accented with sparkling silver trim and sequins, she walks from her room to the dance hall in the lobby.
Standing at 4 feet, 11 inches, Scott’s dwarfed by the ballroom’s French doors as she enters into the competition. She’s holding a white Kleenex, wiping her teeth, still thinking about her makeup, asking friends if she looks all right.
“Is there lipstick on my teeth?” she asks. “How are my lashes? Are they on straight?”
The pre-dance anxiety drizzles away, as the master of ceremonies calls for her heat to begin.
The competition starts.
A rumba rhythm seeps through the dance hall speakers.
Scott and her partner start to sway, their eyes locked on each other. Her blue-sequined dress glinting under a spectrum of blinking lights, cream-colored fishnet stockings covering her legs.
Soon she’s spun around, moving like a slow flame curling upward, returning crisply to the clasp of her partner, the two moving as one. Judges stand offstage — stoic — clipboards blazing, marking who’ll go home with glory and who will just go home.
Scott pays them no mind. Digging the beat. Seductive. Nimble.
The music fades out, the two keep moving, the remembered tune still inspiring. Then like tissues in wind, all the competitors glide with light feet off the floor, and wait to be called into the next heat, the next step up, the next chance to win. She will dance in more than 100 heats throughout the four-day event.
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Scott’s been preparing for this moment — the National Dance Sport Championship — for more than a year. And for the past three weeks she had been intensely training with her Fred Astaire Dance Studio partner Brian Oakes, an impossible feat for her 10 years ago.
After multiple vertebra in her back crumpled like brittle crackers in a fall, Dolly, now 70, couldn’t even stand. Her condition was made worse by osteoporosis. On top of the debilitating injury, the former nurse says she was faced with caring for her husband, who was dying of emphysema and pancreatic cancer. An emotionally paralyzing burden on its own.
On top of that, she had just opened a restaurant.
“Your whole life can change in a blink of an eyelash,” she says now, remembering the fall that caused her injury. Yet, she could easily be speaking about the resolve she gained after the accident.
Many people in her situation would take a rest, recoup, retire. Not Dolly Scott. Her accident helped inspire her. To become more active. To work harder, defying any expectation that she couldn’t return to a normal lifestyle.
She’s proving there is no excuse to act your age.
“Come on, Dolly,” says Oakes, her 28-year-old dance partner, during a dancing lesson before the competition. He’s moving Dolly’s arms, telling her to hold them steady, insisting that her body stay firm so he can lead her. “Keep your frame,” he says.
A swing beat fills the air as the two rock-step in rhythm. He stops again, showing her how she needs to move her feet if she wants to do well in Orlando.
“I hope to live to 120 and dance,” she says, taking a break for water. “When I’m out there I feel like I’m 28.”
A dance step seems like small change compared to her other undertakings. Over the past five years, she’s entered a charity walk from Boca Raton to Miami and a 5-kilometer race in Alaska. She was also honored with the task of jogging the Olympic torch through Bonita Springs.
Scott says activities have been critical in her recovery. Despite what doctors told her, the physical demands have helped more than any drugs. “I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do to live,” she says.
After her fall, she says her doctors wanted to inject a type of glue into her backbone so that the vertebra could be stabilized. Dolly refused treatment. “They couldn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t go into paralysis,” she says.
Instead of the treatments, she says she opted to have boards put under the cushions of her blue couch at home, so that she had some form of back support. “I refused to go into bed, because I thought if I got in, I’d never get out,” she says.
Her husband, Gerald Scott, ill and unable to help, spent his time cooped up in bed, his condition worsening.
So with little help, practically incapacitated, and unable to stand, Dolly says she was on her own for more than a month after the injury. When she needed to go to the bathroom or bathe she would have to deal with the excruciating pain — and crawl.
“I was worried that if I became too dependent, I’d lose my independence,” she says. Her father taught her that people are far more capable than they are given credit for.
And humor helps her get through life. She tells a story of when she used to crawl on the carpet to get to the bathroom. “I was down there,” she says, her face inches from the fibers, “and I’d say, ‘Hey, this needs to be cleaned.”
Humor also helps her manage her anger and frustration, she says. Some people use anger to overcome life trials, she points out. Scott finds laughing to be more helpful.
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The severity of the fall in 1996 — a fluke accident where she tripped over a rolled-up piece of carpeting at her Bonita condo — didn’t leave many with hope that she would be capable of much.
An ambulance rushed her to the hospital, and doctors told her she had shattered vertebra in her back. She says they told her that she may never walk again, and insisting that she get bed rest and take pain medication to feel better.
She didn’t listen.
“I just shake my head,” says Sydney Sheaffer, a licensed massage therapist, who was a key part of Dolly’s rehabilitation, “she has even gone beyond my expectations.”
Sheaffer says he knew how spunky Scott was before the accident. Dolly would whiz around serving, bussing tables, cooking and ringing up customers, he says.
But one afternoon, months after the accident, he was eating Dolly’s homemade tomato basil soup at Dolly’s Produce Patch on Bonita Beach Road, he noticed she had lost her normal buzz. “She kept moaning and groaning and holding her back.”
She was walking by now, barely, but Sheaffer saw that the usually quick-tongued restaurateur was hobbled. Her usually upright body crouched as though she was bowing.
Sheaffer offered to help. Over the course of a year, he says, he intensively worked on her back, helping her posture shift from a fetal position to an upright position. But with nearly seven crushed vertebra, she will never stand completely straight.
“Her rehabilitation has been significant in that every doctor had written her off as being crippled the rest of her life,” Sheaffer says. “Her recovery has been phenomenal if not miraculous.”
Today Scott, a fraction shorter than she was before, has a hump on her back. That doesn’t bother her, “I say, ‘That’s where I keep my angel wings.’”
The dancing worries Sheaffer. The spinning and the quick movements, he says, may cause her to hurt herself. He says he fears that any false move could paralyze her.
“She’s already been through so much,” he says, adding that there’s not much anybody can do to stop her.
“Dolly’s a go-getter,” he says. “She doesn’t like to sit still.”
Medical doctors say that Scott’s dancing is a wonderful way to stay healthy. Dr. Ken Brummel-Smith, the chair of the department of geriatrics at Florida State University, says that activities like dancing may lead to more falls among the elderly, but that the strengthened muscles also help prevent rehabilitating injury.
“Rest is not necessarily the right treatment of osteoporosis,” he says, “Exercise prevents and resolves problems, but the medical community has not paid much attention to that.”
Just as a muscle gets stronger and bigger the more it’s used, a bone becomes stronger and denser with more demands placed on it, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, a group that studies the disorder.
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When Scott’s not dancing, she’s working at her restaurant, which she opened a year before the accident.
In many ways the diner is a extension of Scott’s personality. She has a seemingly insatiable desire to help others; the restaurant gives her an outlet of service to accomplish that.
The restaurant’s decorated with a country-style hodgepodge. Soft yellows, pastel greens, and large windows make the air seem soft. The space has an unmistakably homey feel, and that’s the point, Scott says.
Recently a woman came to the restaurant after it had closed. She really wanted to get the daily special — pot roast. Instead of turning her away, Scott went back to the kitchen, filled a plate with gravy-drizzled potatoes and steaming pot roast, covered it with plastic wrap, and presented it to the hungry woman. “Here you go, dear, now you have something for dinner.”
During busier times, she can often be found roving through the dining room, greeting customers by first name. She’ll even sneak a chip or french-fry from patrons’ plates, saying she likes to share.
“They’re not customers,” she says, “They’re friends.” This philosophy has made Dolly a magnet of affection.
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At the national competition she consistently keeps everyone laughing. By the second day of the event, she has already made friends with judges, officials and, of course, with her competitors.
“It’s not about winning for me,” she says. She’s not nervous when she dances.
Before the dance competition began, she set a goal of 60 first-place prizes. The most important thing, she’ll tell you now, is that she just wants to have fun.
“This is just another challenge for me,” she says, pointing out that she’s made it here, and that’s prize enough.
“I like to call myself a survivor,” she says.
By the fourth day of the competition, and her 100th heat at the competition, Scott’s energy level is as ramped up as when she arrived. She’s consistently danced for nearly eight hours a day, finding time each evening to have a nightcap of Dewar’s with soda and a twist.
She finishes the last day, and the last dance of normal competition with a west coast swing.
“This is the greatest,” she exclaims. She dreaded the dance practicing in Naples, but says now that she enjoyed every step of it in Orlando.
As she begins to walk off the floor, the emcee’s voice comes over the speakers, requesting that the dancers return for their prizes. Scott’s noticeably excited.
The prizes start rolling out as the names of competitors are announced. The wait seems to have her anxious. She rocks back and forth. Hopeful. Nervous. Excited.
Finally, her name, “Dolly Scott, first place.” A visible jolt runs through her, she scurries to the judge to collect her prize. By the end of the four days, they call out Dolly Scott’s name for 56 first-place prizes.
“I wanted 60,” she says, feigning disappointment. She says she’s been through too much to get upset.
“I’m just so glad to be here,” she says, “When people say I’m great, I say, ‘No. I’m grateful.’”