When you’re 99, what do you do on a cold Monday night in January?
Why, you go dancing.
At least that’s what you do if you’re Esther Smith.
“She can dance pretty much all night,” said long-time dance partner Ron Nystrom, 72, a retired Air Force officer who lives in Fairview Heights. “We don’t miss a dance. Now, a polka may be more than she wants to do.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
Esther broke her leg a few years ago after falling in her Collinsville apartment.
“It took two years to where it wasn’t hurting,” she said.
“You weren’t waiting any two years to go dancing,” said Ron.
“Dancing is good exercise,” said Esther.
Her favorite musicians? The Music Men, The Alley Cats and Bob Tyler
Her favorite music? “I like almost anything. ‘Woodchopper’s Ball.’ It’s fast.”
“It’s a swing dance,” said Ron, “but you also like waltzes. Tell her your favorite waltz.”
Ron, in a tie and sport coat, and Esther, in black slacks and a fuchsia top with sparkly beading, headed to Granite City that night for three hours of dancing.
It’s what Esther will do to celebrate her 100th birthday. She and Ron, along with friends and family, will be at Belleville Moose Lodge on Feb. 21. Ron will bring his homemade ice cream. Not everyone will be dancing.
“I can’t keep up with her,” said son Jim. “I think she’s amazing.”
Esther was never far from music. She was born and raised in Millstadt. Her dad, Albert Pistor, played bass fiddle in a band. Her mom, Ella, took both Esther and twin brother Lester to dances from the start. Lester wasn’t a dancer.
“He couldn’t get his feet moving,” she said.
Esther was always good on her feet. In school, she played center on the girls basketball team.
How tall is she?
“5 foot. I am really 4-foot-11. I guess I was the center because I was able to jump up and down. The girl in there before couldn’t get her feet off the floor.”
Esther, who attended school in Millstadt through 10th grade, was working at Weil-Kalter Company, a rayon factory (now lofts across from St. James Catholic Church) by the time she was 16. She met her husband at a dance. Walter Klotz had a dairy farm near what is now 59th street. That is where they reared their children, two boys and a girl (daughter Judy died in 2008.). They reserved Saturday nights to go dancing at the Moose Lodge, something she still does. (Walter died in 1988.)
Daughter-in-law Georgia Klotz, 69, was at one of those dances not too long ago.
“I think that’s what kept her young,” said Georgia. “I’m telling you, I don’t think she sat down. She gets around. She will still take steps instead of the elevator.”
Georgia has known Esther since she was 13.
“I would go out to the farm. (John) was my first date. We got married at 17. I was more tomboy than girl ... She helped me learn how to can. And clean, clean, clean. That woman could clean. We had seven kids. She’d come up and help me. We got along. She would say, ‘I always did love you like a daughter.’ We’ve been married 52 years. One time, John had to go off for a seminar in New Orleans. I went, too. We figured the kids would be in school. We left and there was a big snow. Here she was stuck with all those kids. The snow was so deep they had to get groceries in on a tractor. ... She’s a very good mother-in-law.”
Esther met her second husband, Oren “Joke” Smith, at a dance. They married in 1995. He died five years later.
A little while later, she found a new dancing partner.
“We were at the Moose (in May 2000),” said Esther. “(Ron) came and asked me to dance. After that, we kept on dancing.”
“She was only 85,” said Ron. “She said, ‘You are too young for me to date.’ So we didn’t. We just go dancing. I’ve been 27 years younger than her all along.
“She hasn’t been without a dance partner her whole life. I knew I was dancing with a Cadillac with power everything, not an old tractor. When I first met Esther, it was taboo to learn on the dance floor. I’ve learned a lot since. She molded me into a dance partner. She is outstanding.”
So is he.
“Oh sure, he learned,” said Esther. “ He had to. Yeah, he’s a good dancer.”
They lament that the number of dances are dwindling, but usually manage to find one a week.
“Dancing is a partnership. It’s a team effort,” Ron said. “As I have been learning to dance, my job is to make her look good. Given her skills, it’s easy. We get compliments all the time. People like to watch us dance. If I am going to make a mistake, she’s going to follow me and make the same mistake. We look fairly smooth, like we know what we are doing. I like to keep it varied so she doesn’t know what’s next.”
He looks out for her.
“Esther is good at knowing what her limits are,” he said, then smiled her way. “You set yourself a high bar.”
“Dancing keeps you going,” said Esther. “ It makes you feel younger. I look forward to it all the time. I can’t believe I’m gonna be 100.”