Inspire Before I Expire
If you view cheerleaders as young, enthusiastic women, then think again! We meet the inspirational Sun City Poms, a retiree cheerleading troupe from Arizona who subvert the perceptions of ageing
By Annabel Herrick
Photography by Todd Antony
It’s 8am in Arizona and Sharon Word is battling with her laptop’s microphone as we attempt a call over Zoom. I shout “I’ll try your phone!” with gesticulations aimed towards her chin in full view. It’s far too easy to patronise the older generation, particularly when it comes to tech, but I remind myself that I’m talking to an 82 year-old who can do the splits. “Ageing is a choice,” the cheerleader told me, as she fits me in for a call before a day on the golf course.
Nestled away in the state of Arizona you’ll find the retirement community of Sun City. Built in 1960, the town is home to 37,000 retirees where the minimum age for a resident is 55; the concept centres around leisure and activities for the elderly. It’s a destination for seniors who have no interest in slowing down. “People get old when they don’t have anything to do,” explained Sharon, “You can be old at 20 and young at 80 but it’s how you perceive life. It’s important to keep your mind young.”
Activities on offer include golf, bowling, concerts, dancing, and, of course, cheerleading. The Sun City Poms are a troupe who range from 55 to 86 years old. Formed in 1979, the women train twice a week for up to 10 hours, performing upwards of 40 times a year. Their gigs include everything from marching in the annual Fiesta Bowl parade to performances at civic events, charity fundraisers, nursing home visits and even high school pep rallies. Together, these women have changed everyone’s perceptions of aging and even inspired the 2019 film ‘Poms,’ which starred Diane Keaton.
Photographer Todd Antony started shooting portraits of the Poms three years ago, fascinated by their skill and drive. In 2020, he wanted to delve deeper with a film, “It tells a much greater story about the people involved,” he explained. Todd stayed for one week to finish this personal project with his crew, “Sun City is like walking into a place that is the love child of Wes Anderson and Tim Burton,” he described. This perfect kitsch setting forms the backdrop for the star, Sharon, and her seemingly double life as a dowdy old lady and glamorous performer. Since joining at the age of 74, Sharon is addicted: “It’s a great form of exercise. It helps with balance for walking and keeping active. Sometimes we march for 2.5 miles non stop,” she added.
When building out the storyboard, Todd knew his key aim was to subvert the traditional portrayals of aging: “I wanted to begin with Sharon making her breakfast and cleaning up the dishes before a moment of transition,” he said, “We wanted to lull the viewer into a false sense of security before the big reveal.” True to the film, when I asked Sharon about the preparation that goes into a show, she described the feeling as transformational: “I get dressed up and feel like a little girl again.” As for costumes, she admitted there are a few tricks they swear by: “The pantyhose make our legs look amazing. I mean, I still have pretty good legs for an old lady!”
Rather than projecting his own vision onto the women, Todd wanted to make sure the real voices of the Poms were heard. He decided to record Sharon reciting one of her own poems, which totally changed the narrative structure of the film. “It works because it’s genuine and so personal to her,” said Todd, “It adds a flow to the film and basically summed up everything I was trying to get across.”
When I spoke to Sharon about the importance of the Poms community to her, she told me: “We have a closeness, like daughters. They have blessed my life.” However, the Poms are about instilling positivity in the crowd as much as the tight-knit sisterhood: “We get the most cheers. It makes people feel good and they all get up and dance with us.” As far as Sharon is concerned, if people are smiling, she’s done a good job: “Music and dancing is good for the soul.”
One of her tips for eternal youth, Sharon told me, is to never stop learning: “I only just started hula hooping yesterday! I managed to get my hips going!” If there’s one thing Todd learnt from his experience of filming with the women, it’s about courage: “They’re getting out there and doing it. Now I’m in my mid 40s I marvel at them even more as I begin to notice the creaks in my own body…” he added, “I look at them and think, ‘Come on, I can do this.”
For Sharon, life is about conquering your fears: “Just go on and do it.” She uses our call as an example: “See honey – the microphone wouldn’t work and I got scared but I overcame it,” she continued, “The young and old can teach each other – I call it my ‘rainbow bridge.’ And, look, today you’ve been my rainbow.” At that point, I was glad we gave up on Zoom, grateful she couldn’t see me welling up as I ended the call.
Ten life lessons from Sharon Word – member of the Sun City Poms:
1. Create memories and not stuff. Remember “the easiest way to organize stuff is to get rid of it.”
2. Attitude is a choice; accent the positive and eliminate the negative.
3. Be accountable to yourself and the people around you.
4. Learn to forgive. You may never forget the hurt but forgive it.
5. Use your imagination, be creative and don’t lose sense of your inner child.
6. It’s okay to say no!
7. Beauty comes from within you. Be you.
8. Face obstacles and conquer them. You may not ‘get over’ them but you can get through them.
9. Life is hard work. Don’t whine and say ‘poor me.’
10. Let go of things that don’t work. When one door shuts another one opens.
Film Directed and Produced by Todd Antony, Director of Photography Cameron Trejo, Editor Ben Elkaim – Trim Colourist Jack McGinity – Cheat. A special thanks to all the members of The Sun City Poms
Editorial Design Root