John Leon Lewis knows how to get a dance party started, even if some of the music is decades old and a therapist mingles with the crowd to make sure no one falls.
Lewis does it over and over each week, entertaining at Alzheimer’s and elderly care facilities in the Charlotte region.
A recent performance at The Ivey, a day care for adults with memory issues in SouthPark, began with rows of people with Alzheimer’s and dementia seated in a common area.
Isn’t this a great place where people can get up and dance and make fools of themselves?
A guest at The Ivey
Within minutes, some were on their feet – some without their walkers – dancing and singing along with Lewis’ deep baritone to “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” a song that was published in 1910.
Lewis called up the men for one song, and several moved enthusiastically to Janet Jackson’s “Nasty.”
“His feet are smokin,’” Lewis called out, as one man showed off his dance moves. When the song ended, Lewis invited guests and staff members to slow dance to “Tennessee Waltz.”
Lewis’ performances are a tribute to his mother, who died in 2003 of Alzheimer’s disease.
“I felt like the Lord was using me and my music,” Lewis, who is 66, said about his ministry. “It helps senior adults have a better quality of life and a better quality of joy.”
Lewis grew up in Baltimore, and he studied music and the Peabody Conservatory and majored in voice and piano at Towson University. He taught music for 15 years in the Baltimore City Public Schools system before taking a fulltime job in church music ministry.
He moved to Charlotte in 1999 to work as the music minister at Calvary Church and then spent 10 years at Harrison United Methodist Church.
His mother had moved to Charlotte with him, and eventually he moved her into White Oak Manor care center on Craig Avenue.
She was a great supporter of his music, Lewis said. After she died, staff at White Oak Manor asked Lewis to come back and sing. He immediately agreed.
“I had no idea what was going to happen,” he said. “I just wanted to sing where my mother passed away.”
The staff then asked him to sing every month. That gig grew to singing in 15 senior care facilities a month, then to 25.
He taught himself a new repertoire, focusing on Big Band, gospel, hymns and patriotic music. Lewis wanted songs that would connect with his audience.
Pastors at Harrison and now at River Hills Community Church in Lake Wylie have allowed him to expand his music ministry. Now he provides as many as 50 programs a month for senior adults.
“When something tragic happens in your life, you can use it to destroy you or to catapult you to something great,” Lewis said.
One of Lewis’ most vivid memories is of his mother peeping through her door at White Oak Manor, as if she were waiting for him to arrive.
Now, when he greets as many as 75 people in wheelchairs gathered for his show, he has the same feeling, “Like my mother’s waiting for me,” he said.
Lynn Ivey, founder and CEO of The Ivey, said Lewis makes extraordinary connections with The Ivey’s members.
“I was in tears every time he came because of what I saw in our members,” she said. People who typically did not talk will slap their hands on their chairs and tap their feet. She describes Lewis’ shows as “seamless,” as he weaves together a performance that appears spontaneous but is actually well planned.
Just getting people to stand up from their chairs on their own is a “big deal,” Ivey said. Lewis knows people with memory issues will mirror movement, and when people get up to dance with him he throws his arms in the air and kicks his legs.
Often, the person he’s dancing with does the same.
He cajoles and encourages and jokes with the crowd. He asks some to dance, while others willingly head toward him as soon as the music starts. He makes eye contact and knows their names.
At Lewis’ recent Ivey performance, one elderly guest was compelled to speak to the crowd toward the end.
“Isn’t this a great place where people can get up and dance and make fools of themselves?” he asked, tearing up a little as he spoke.
Marty Minchin is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.