Posted on October 16, 2020 by Mari Evans
“A firecracker.” “The life of the party.” “Señorita Estallita Fulla Suga.” Estelle Reiff goes by many monikers, which only makes sense for a woman who has played many roles in her long life – an accomplished dancer, teacher and mother. The beloved resident of Atria Forest Hills, a senior living community in Queens, New York, turned 100 in September, and continues to make a difference in the lives of those around her.
“I danced all my life – all I can remember is dancing”
Estelle Reiff was born in 1920 in Nashville, Tennessee, and started dancing at age five. By the time she was 10, she and her brother had formed a vaudeville act called “The Peppiest Pair.” Following a brief stint as a fashion deco model in the late 1930s, Estelle performed in local shows before joining the dance troupe of the renowned Mexican comedian and actor Cantinflas, with whom she traveled throughout the U.S. and Mexico in the 1940s.
In 1948, Estelle married Benjamin – also a dancer – and they settled in New York City, where she opened her own studio and worked alongside luminaries such as Gwen Verdon, Peter Gennaro, Bobby Van, Debbie Allen and Debbie Reynolds. Throughout her career, she danced tap, jazz, ballroom and especially Latin dance (hence the Spanish-styled nickname she gave herself: “Señorita Estallita Fulla Suga.”)
Estelle later served on the board of directors for the New York Society of Teachers of Dancing and was part of a local Hadassah group for more than 30 years, performing at fundraisers. She was also the senior dance instructor for the New York City Department of Education’s Adult Education Program for Dancing, working in the evenings with her husband at Flushing High School for more than 25 years.
In her early 70s, Estelle noticed there were not nearly enough dance programs tailored to seniors, so she set out to be part of the solution by teaching dance at a number of senior centers throughout Queens. She was a long-term participant at the Peter Dellamonica Senior Center, part of the Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens, where she danced every chance she got. According to her son, even a cane – and then a walker – couldn’t keep her in her seat.
“The furthest thing from a wallflower”
Estelle continued teaching dance for Dellamonica when she scheduled a tour of Atria Forest Hills in the fall of 2018. Since she’s been at Atria, she’s continued to contribute and inspire others in a different way.
“She really is a mother figure to everyone in the building,” said Beth Levi, the community’s Engage Life Director. “She’s the furthest thing from a wallflower. She needs to be social. You miss her presence when she’s not there.”
Before the pandemic, according to Levi, Estelle showed up to every program or party at the community. “If she missed anything, she’d be mad.” She treats everyone with respect and kindness, and even people her age seek out her advice. “I’m the 100-year-old encyclopedia,” Estelle said, laughing.
As her son Alan (pictured above) puts it, “just play music and see what happens. She will grab onto anyone close by to move her legs and wiggle her hips in a swirl of joyful movement recalling a lifetime of dance.”
To learn more about how Atria Senior Living is helping residents and families stay connected, visit AtriaSafeTogether.com.