Shirley Isabell remains ‘the belle of the ball’“May I have this dance?” asked the tall gentleman as he extended his hand to the lovely lady seated in the chair. “You may,” responded the lady as she slowly rose from her chair, and the two danced across the floor amidst candlelit tables covered in scarlet cloth and glimmering gold decorations.
“May I have this dance?” asked the tall gentleman as he extended his hand to the lovely lady seated in the chair.
“You may,” responded the lady as she slowly rose from her chair, and the two danced across the floor amidst candlelit tables covered in scarlet cloth and glimmering gold decorations.
If the scene sounds like something out of a fairy tale, perhaps it was – at least for 89-year-old Shirley Isabell of Cloquet. This was the first time Isabell, a once-celebrated ballroom dancer, had danced in many decades. And as she glided over the makeshift dance floor at the Lighthouse of Cloquet, an assisted living and memory care community, the years seemed to slip away and she was once again the “belle of the ball.”
Isabell grew up in Duluth, where her mom and dad owned and operated a grocery store. As a young woman during World War II, she worked in the billing department at Frasier Shipyard and married Joseph Isabell. The two set about building a house on Anderson Road in Duluth, and just as it was almost finished, Joseph went off to the Korean War, where he was stationed with the Navy on the United States gunboat Padukah.
In the meantime, Shirley was raising daughter Cheryl and son Jim, living in a house that wasn’t quite finished, and living on very little money.
“That’s when her mom and dad helped her out with a lot of groceries and other supplies,” recalled her now-adult daughter, Cheryl Liebaert of Superior. “I remember we had a lot of bacon, a lot of rice and a lot of tomatoes, so for two or three years we had an awful lot of Spanish rice! It’s only been within the past two or three years that I’ve been able to stomach it again!” she added with a laugh.
When Joseph came home from overseas and was discharged from the service, he went to work for Minnesota Power and Light, and Shirley spent most of her time taking care of their children and working as a housewife.
“She was a great baker,” recalled Liebaert. “We had fresh bread all the time, and Dad insisted we have dessert every single night. She was a good cook and housekeeper, though women those days didn’t have all of the time-saving devices we have today. She had to do a lot of ironing, too, because everything back then was made of cotton.”
The Isabells’ third child, Robert, was born five years after Jim, and then the youngest, Jon, was born when Shirley was in her 40s.
“Jon was born two days after Thanksgiving,” recalled Liebaert, “and I remember that year I made the turkey dinner at the age of 13 because my mom was ready to deliver!”
Shirley and Joseph did a lot of square dancing during their married years.
“She and my dad would go out nearly every Friday or Saturday night and do their square dancing,” said Liebaert.
During that time, Shirley made all her own square dancing dresses with the fancy crinolines underneath.
“We used to have a neighbor who sewed for a living and did work for a lot of wealthy people in downtown Duluth,” recalled Shirley. “I just watched people like her and how they did it and tried to do it the same way.”
“My mom has always been a good sewer,” attested Liebaert. “When I got married, she made my wedding dress and my bridesmaids’ dresses, and she made my daughter a prom dress. She was quite an accomplished seamstress. She sewed all her life until her eyesight began to fail.”
Joseph decided to take an early buyout from MP&L and retired, with the thought that he and Shirley would do some traveling. He was a self-taught carpenter, and he converted a gutted van into a camper, complete with a bed, refrigerator and all the furnishings.
“He and my mom were going to go off for five or six months and travel around the country,” said Liebaert.
They first headed to New York City, where Joseph did some carpentry work for their son Robert, who had become an internationally acclaimed florist.
“He started at Engwall’s in Duluth, working with the plants,” explained Liebaert, “and eventually he got into arranging. He went to Minneapolis and then ended up in New York City. He was an event planner for Kennedy weddings, decorated the White House and worked on million-dollar parties. At the time our parents traveled to New York, Robert was working for the man who ran Studio 54 and my dad built planters for him to plant trees in at the restaurant. It was unheard of in New York City at that time – to put a tree in a restaurant! They ended up calling them Isabell planters.”
After Shirley and her husband left New York City, they were headed to Richland, Va., when they pulled over in a wayside rest and Joseph had some kind of seizure. Shirley had to drive him into the city herself and find a hospital, and doctors later determined he had a malignant brain tumor and referred him to a doctor in Duluth.
Joseph was home for six months before his failing health landed him in the veterans’ hospital in the Twin Cities. Shirley would drive back and forth to see him, going down there for two days, coming home for four or five days and then going back to the Twin Cities.
“That went on for about six months,” related Liebaert, “and when my dad finally died, she was mentally and physically exhausted.”
Shortly thereafter, while in her mid-50s, Shirley decided to take up ballroom dancing, which proved to be her salvation.
“She was home alone, with nothing to look forward to, so she started taking ballroom dance lessons,” explained Liebaert. “It evolved into [participating in] competitions and filled a big void in her life for the next 10 years. She had a wall full of trophies. My brother built shelves for them, and eventually, the whole wall was filled with trophies.”
Most of her competitions were in Duluth, Minneapolis and throughout the three-state region.
“She was a lone traveler,” said Liebaert. “She was pretty feisty back then, and she would think nothing of going on a cruise by herself or getting in the car and driving someplace. She went all over by herself, and she was able to travel to Europe several times and used to go on dancing cruises also. They’d have dance lessons during the day and at night, the instructors would dance with all the women and she really enjoyed that.”
Shirley competed with her dance instructor as her partner, who operated a dance studio in downtown Duluth. She danced mostly for the trophies and the bragging rights, but with her natural sense of rhythm and flair for the dramatic, her dancing became an integral part of her.
“I never paid as much attention to it as I should have,” admitted Liebaert, who was raising her own small children at the time, “but now that everyone’s watching ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ I totally understand what she was doing and why she loved it. I didn’t realize how technical it was.”
Shirley made all her own dance costumes for her dance competitions.
“She couldn’t afford to go out and buy them, and where would you buy ballroom costumes in Duluth in the first place?” said Liebaert. “She made all of her own dresses, and she would sit there and sew sequin upon sequin upon sequin, along with feathers and all sorts of things.”
Another passion in Shirley’s life was reading.
“If she wasn’t sewing, she was reading,” related Liebaert. “They knew her on a first-name basis at the library. She would go there and think nothing of checking out five or six books a week, go home and read them, bring them back the following week and check out five or six more. She was a very avid reader.”
Shirley danced competitively for about 10 years, when the solo travel and competition “kind of ran its course and she moved on,” said Liebaert. “I think if she would have had her own partner, things would have been different. When they had the dance competitions, there would always be dances the Friday night before. It’s no fun to sit there and not have anybody to dance with. Sometimes if you have your own partner, you don’t want to share them, and the dance teacher had to dance with everybody.”
Five years ago, while Shirley was still living in her home in Duluth, she took a couple of tumbles and her memory started to fail. Her family moved her to Keystone Bluffs in Duluth where she lived up until about a year ago, when one day she packed her bag and declared she was going to leave.
“I had a temper when they didn’t want to do things the way I wanted to do them,” explained Shirley straightforwardly.
It was then she came to live at the Lighthouse of Cloquet. Though today she suffers from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, some deep-seated memories stirred within her during the recent evening of ballroom dancing this fall.
“The Lighthouse planned a session of ballroom dancing as an activity and brought in a ballroom dance instructor to dance with the residents,” explained Liebaert. “And while everyone got their turn, my mom was one of those who could follow his lead the best. I think some of those things are ingrained in you once you learn them. It’s like walking – you don’t ever forget how to do it.”
And while most of Shirley’s memories are now buried in the distant past, there’s still one thing that makes her face brighten and her eyes grow clear and bright.
“Ballroom dancing is what I love,” said Shirley earlier this week. “That was the best thing I ever did – and I had fun doing it!”