Stella “Starr” Clarke

Doing her own thing

Photo courtesy of Gerlach Graphic
Photo courtesy of Gerlach Graphic

Stella “Starr” Clarke, kept running into the sociable stranger in her Cleveland Park neighborhood. Each time, his message was the same: “Come check out the club.” After four invitations, she had to see this place for herself.

The “club” turned out to be Iona’s Active Wellness Program at St. Alban’s, held every weekday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the grounds of the National Cathedral. The program attracts older adults from the neighborhood and beyond who are drawn to the nutritious lunch and diverse activities — such as exercise class, a farmer’s market with free produce and field trips.

“I like the people and we have a lot to talk about, whether we are black, white, pink, or blue,” says Stella, 80, who is married and has children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren but appreciates the opportunity to do her own thing.

She has been doing her own thing since she was three years old and fell in love with dance. A native of Guyana, South America, Stella honed her skills as an interpretive and Caribbean folk dancer and, at an early age, was crowned Carnival Queen. She founded a well-known dance school; her “Dancing Dolls” performed for presidents and other dignitaries. In Guyana she is considered a national treasure. She was recognized by the government in an official ceremony celebrating her as a national cultural icon.

When she moved to the U.S., Stella was invited to train with the prestigious Alvin Ailey Dance School. She has been teaching dance ever since, even recreating “The Dancing Dolls” with children of Caribbean heritage living in the Washington area.

Frequently asked her secret to staying “young,” Stella’s response is morning exercise — in the shower! — where she stretches, twists, and touches her toes. “The warm water loosens you up; that’s why I look and feel like a teenager,” she laughs.

At St. Alban’s, “we talk about everything from our families to our finances. It’s as if we’ve known each other for years,” says Stella, who has been participating in the program since 2013.

Courtney Tolbert, who manages the St. Alban’s program, “is one in a million,’” says Stella. “She’s constantly adding new programs. For instance, September is National Hispanic Heritage Month so we listened to Joan Baez and José Feliciano and went to the National Portrait Gallery to see an exhibition about Dolores Huerta (the farm workers’ movement leader).”

“We all have such incredible lives,” says Stella, noting that a recent event featured a discussion about a new book by Alec McRae, another St. Alban’s participant.

And, in fact, Stella herself (along with granddaughter Kahina Haynes, School Director of Dance Institute of Washington) performed at St. Albans. “I plan to dance until the day I die,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.

Written by Janice Kaplan