Chronologically, John H. Williamson is 76 years old. But not only does he not act like it, he doesn’t feel it.
Williamson, better known as Old Man Dancing, even has his moniker stitched colorfully on his cap.
He is tall and thin, with a long white beard. He’s talkative, quick to smile and laugh. He prances among the stacks of books, boxes of undeveloped film and several white five-gallon buckets in the front room of his small apartment.
He’s wearing his usual outfit — two-inches-too-short Marine Corps dress blue pants with a red stripe along the outside of each leg that he’s hemmed with embroidered multi-colored thread in zig-zag patterns, green socks and old gray sneakers.
On the back are two round, embroidered patches in rainbow colors. He learned how to make multicolored patches and hems by using one color for the needle thread and a different color for the bobbin thread and continuously adjusting the tension so the bobbin thread shows through.
He protects himself from the misty rain with a red plaid Pendleton wool button-up shirt. His overcoat is a red plaid suit jacket that’s a couple of sizes too large. His Old Man Dancing cap is covered with jeweled brooches and pins he’s purchased from the Junior League of Eugene thrift store.
The effect is rather like a leprechaun pouncing from room to room.
Since he lives across the street from the Kiva natural grocery store, he’s taken to collecting the five-gallon buckets that their nut butters come in. The store’s workers leave them out for him, and he scoops out the remnants of the organic almond butter and peanut butter, keeping some of it for himself and donating the rest to the Eugene Mission.
Williamson doesn’t have a TV, but he does have stacks of music CDs. He also doesn’t have a bed — instead he sleeps on an Army cot covered with wool blankets. There’s little room for anyone but him to move around.
He doesn’t apologize for the state of his apartment, admitting he quit saying “I’m sorry” when he realized how much time humans spend saying they’re sorry for things when they didn’t do anything wrong.
His closets are full of military dress uniforms from all branches of the service — he taught himself how to deconstruct the lining of the wool vests to make new jackets, and he favors the wool pants and jackets because they’re made of durable wool. He’s got enough outfits now for several lifetimes. “I’m a stasher,” he says.
He’s already a Master Gardener who tends several garden boxes on the roof of his apartment building, and has decided to turn his love of salvage into becoming a certified Master Recycler.
Despite what many people might call odd habits, Old Man Dancing is quite intelligent and friendly. He’s proud of the fact that his dancing has made him noticeable around town, and he can easily recount the many times he’s been told that he’s an inspiration to other older folks.
While he identifies as “John H. Williamson,” he also readily embraces his role as Old Man Dancing, and quickly recites a poem called “The Dancer’s Prayer” by Hans Bos: “While I dance I cannot judge, I cannot hate, I cannot separate myself from life. I can only be joyful and whole. That is why I dance.”
Reversing a lifetime of poor health
Williamson’s life doesn’t follow the usual trajectory. Old Man Dancing has been a Eugene fixture for decades though he’s originally from Southern California. He was a sickly child — “an antibiotic junkie,” he says — but he gave up all medicines in 1975.
He says he used to struggle with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and hasn’t had long-lasting relationships with women.
“I’ve had relationships off and on,” he says. “I lived with a woman for a month and I thought, ‘How can I live with another person if I haven’t lived with myself?’ So that didn’t work out. The advantage is that I’ve had time to learn all these skills — welding, aircraft mechanics, sewing, gardening, auto mechanics — because I’ve been alone.”
As a child, he watched his older brother jump off the roof of a house, and he did it, too. He didn’t realize at the time, but he had broken the arches in his feet. That came back to haunt him as an adult, when he started walking with a limp and had a severely crooked spine.
In junior college, Williamson trained to be a welder. “But I realized that job prospects for welders weren’t good, so I joined the Army and went to Vietnam. “No killing,” he says. “I didn’t have to do that.”
He went to one recruiter who accepted him, then they kicked him out when he admitted he had asthma. He went to a different recruiter and lied about his health to get admitted. “They wanted bodies,” he says, with a laugh.
In 1985, on vacation in the Fiji Islands, he contracted a massive Staphylococcus infection. He cured himself by fasting, and then, when his health was restored, he took up running. He enjoyed the movement of running, but it was terrible for his damaged feet.
Dancing, along with vitamins and chiropractic care, has restored his health in profound ways. He believes he healed his mental illness and is much healthier than most people his age due to his diet of fruit and nuts, regular exercise, and his vitamin powders (the Life Extension Mix from the Life Extension Foundation).
“I keep getting told that I am an inspiration for people out there for dancing,” he says. “I’ve got fans all over. Even the police and the Red Hats (downtown security) are my fans.”
As Old Man Dancing, he seeks out smooth dance floors across the city. He’s attached metal taps to the bottom of his dancing shoes, and when he’s got the beat, he moves with smooth, flowing curves in a manner akin to tai chi.
“I’ve been told I dance like a figure skater without the skates,” he says. “Thanks to the dancing I have strength, flexibility and endurance and it’s just getting better. I spent my early life dying quickly and here I am now turning it around. I feel so blessed.”
Spreading joy with his dancing
Old Man Dancing looks forward to Holiday Market, where he can dance indoors on a smooth concrete floor. “I like all types of music,” he says. “Some of it is hard to get into the rhythm but I always get it. I’m dancing to pretty much any kind of music now.”
He frequents the Jazz Station and Whirled Pies in downtown Eugene. Hi-Fi Music Hall is smooth enough. The key to his being able to whirl and swirl with grace is the metal taps that he puts on the bottom of his shoes.
“Taps are getting obsolete,” he says. “I have to replace the taps often and they’re getting harder to find.” Taps are another thing he stashes.
Tai chi helped him learn his balance after his damaged feet made normal walking difficult and painful. He’s translated many of the flowing movements of the martial art to his dancing. When dancing, he connects to his center of gravity, so he can lift one leg and swirl it around and then switch to the other leg without losing his balance. If he does start to lose his balance, he goes with it and makes that part of the movement.
“I’ve learned to make falling look good,” he says with a smile. “I speed up, slow down, and dance around with it. When I’m dancing I’m hooked into something. I have been asked what feelings my dance brings up. It’s joy. It’s freedom. I feel healed. I feel like I float, in a body that is 76 years old.”
Old Man Dancing leans in for a hug – heart to heart. “Let’s make a heart connection,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Photos by Vanessa Salvia
John H. Williamson, aka Old Man Dancing, is a master gardener who works hard to add vitality to his garden soil. He dries plant material and grinds it to a fine powder to add nutrients.