Just one day after he turned 102, Hugh Barnett Jr. dusted off his dancing shoes and hit the floor with friends and fellow members of the Fort Mill Ballroom Dance Club.
Barnett, who lives in Rock Hill, began ballroom dancing more than 70 years ago, shortly after enlisting in the Army following the attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the U.S. into World War II.
While attending officer candidate school for the Army Signal Corp. in Cambridge, Mass., Barnett had free time at night, so he decided to take up dancing.
“I had never done any dancing, and the schools I had gone to didn’t allow it,” Barnett said. “So I signed up.”
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Although he learned his steps in Massachusetts, Barnett didn’t get to attend his first dance until he was transferred to a base in New Orleans. About 10 years later, Barnett married his wife, Juliet, who also was a ballroom dance fan.
The couple moved around the country, as military families often do, so they were able to dance in officers clubs and ballrooms from Virginia to California.
The Barnetts moved to the Westminster Towers retirement community in Rock Hill 17 years ago. After moving to Rock Hill, they never had the chance to dance like they did in their younger years.
“My wife and I – she had quite a bit of arthritis – we hadn’t done any dancing really since we’d been in Rock Hill,” Barnett said. Juliet Barnett died in 2007.
At 95, Barnett rediscovered his passion for dancing when he met Cynthia Ditursi at the Shepherd’s Center in Rock Hill. Ditursi was a member of the Fort Mill Ballroom Dance Club and needed a dance partner.
When Ditursi found out Barnett knew how to ballroom dance, she asked him to stand up so she could see how tall he was. When she saw that he was taller than her, she immediately asked him to be her dance partner, and Barnett accepted.
The two have been dance partners since, and have formed a close friendship off the dance floor, too.
“We’ve been having a lot of fun together,” Ditursi said. “I go over to the Towers, where he lives. He invites me over to dinner. I meet a lot of his friends there, so I feel right at home.”
To celebrate Barnett’s 102nd birthday last week, the two ate with friends at his place and went to the movies to see “The Hundred-Foot Journey.”
As if ballroom dancing at 102 weren’t enough, Barnett also is an active member of the Tega Cay-based Carolina Copy Cats, a lip-syncing group, and he bowls a couple of times a month.
Participating in so many organizations keeps Barnett on the move constantly, especially with the Copy Cats.
“The association of the Copy Cats takes a little bit of time,” Barnett said. “We have a practice, usually on Wednesday mornings. That pretty much kills half the day.
“Over the period of October through April, we do about 30 performances. We go up as far as Gastonia and Belmont, and the other direction to Chester and Lancaster.”
Barnett believes staying active is part of the reason he has lived such a long life, and he has no plans to slow down. An avid golfer when he was younger, Barnett hopes to pick up the game again – when he manages to find time.