TRIM, PERFECTLY coiffed, and with a sweet, frozen smile, Sophia Connor tap dances to "Tea for Two" in the landing of the John Booth Senior Center in Highlandtown. As she performs, Connor communicates a reserved radiance.
An appreciative audience of older women sits in folded chairs. Their gray and white hair is raised painstakingly to East Baltimore height. Hands folded, the women whisper to one another and smile as they might at a dinner theater performance or a night club act caught on a bus trip to Atlantic City.
Among them, Connor's husband, Edward, sits quietly.
Connor, 69, kicks up her cane and makes a neat catch. "Tea for Two" is over. "That's the routine," she says. The ladies applaud and cheer.
This week, Connor vies for the title of Ms. Senior Maryland 1991 at Prince George's Community College in Largo, with the full support of her friends. The senior division of the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks paid her $15 entry fee for the two-day pageant. And 46 John Booth Senior Center residents will board a bus tomorrow to watch her compete. "If noise will win, we've won!" Connor says.
And if she wins, Connor will go on to represent Maryland in the Ms. Senior America Pageant, described as "the world's first and foremost pageant to emphasize and give honor to women who have reached the 'age of elegance.'"
Connor, who at one time taught square dancing and ballroom dancing to seniors with her late second husband, has studied tap dancing only since early September. "They're going to want talent," Connor figured, upon entering the pageant.
She caught on fast, says her teacher, Janette Brown, who runs a Highlandtown dance studio. Connor "has an innate ability for rhythm. She has been a joy to work with...I don't think there are many 69-year-old ladies who can accomplish what she has in such a short amount of time," Brown says.
Brown is also teaching Connor to walk a beauty pageant walk, and this she also demonstrates to her friends. Connor strides across the floor, stands, swivels, steps, stops, counting the beats to herself.
"She said to hold your shoulders up. Let your hands go free...Be sure to face the audience and judge. Start with the right foot, (otherwise) the lighting could go through the legs, and legs are not beautiful," Connor explains.
When she gives the audience a spritely wink, a friend advises, "I think a wink would be cute, I really do, Soph."
"I don't know, that's like bribery," Connor says.
At first, she hesitated before agreeing to participate in the pageant, after being spotted by recruiters at the senior center's Shipwreck Dance last summer. "To tell you the truth, I'm doing it for my senior center," Connor modestly insists. But after encouragement from friends and her two sons, who said, "Mom, go for it!" Connor did not look back.
"She's as serious about this as a 19-year-old is at a Miss America pageant, but honey, she's 50 years older," says June Goldfield, director of the senior center. "In order to become competitive, you have to go into training, and yes, she is going into training."
Growing up, Connor harbored no dreams of beauty-queen glory. "I always wanted to be a nurse. I love to take care of people," she says. Connor never became a nurse, but stayed home to rear her sons and has worked as a substitute teacher.
When she was a child, Connor picked up some tap on the streets and performed in local minstrel shows. But as one of nine children born to Russian immigrants Simon and Mary Karpuk, she had little time or money for lessons.
Her father ran a tavern called Sam's, at the corner of Presstman and Bruce in West Baltimore. "As a young girl, we were never permitted to go into the tavern," Connor remembers. Her mother died when Connor was 7, and her father died when she was 15.
The children kept Sam's going, and took care of one another. They lived in three rooms of a house. Six sisters slept in the back room three to a bed, and three brothers slept in the middle room. "We needed a living room to entertain our men folks," Connor says.
"We were close," Connor says. And, "no matter how bad things were, we always let the public think we had lots of money and were very happy."
Connor outlived her first two husbands. She has been married to Edward Connor, a 74-year-old retired detective sergeant, for five years.
"I was widowed for three years. I never went out of the house, only to the cemetery every morning of my life," Edward Connor begins. It is a story with a surprise ending that he clearly savors, even after countless retellings. The one time Connor's brother coaxed him out of his house to a crab feast, he met Sophia.
"He was in tears. I felt sorry for the poor soul," she says. But after a brief courtship, there came a day when, "I touched his suit and it felt really nice, and I decided to get married," Sophia Connor says.
Edward, who has a lovely tenor voice and sings solos with the senior center chorus, is an avid dancer, as were Sophia's first two husbands.
At the beauty pageant, Connor will participate in the evening gown parade wearing a silver and black sequined gown. "It is not a new one, but I'm comfortable in it," she says.
Pageant judges will also "interview me for five minutes. I must have a prepared speech -- about my theory of life, I think."
For her "Tea for Two" tap dance, Connor will wear a green sequined jacket, black satin pants, a sparkling bow tie and a cummerbund. A young, vibrant Judy Garland comes to mind.
"The more sparkle I have, the less they will look at my feet," Connor says. "I'm gonna blind 'em!"