METEGHAN, N.S. – As song after song fills the room with music – and with nostalgia – Jean and Emma Cottreau sit at a table holding hands. Their love story is still going strong after 48 years of marriage.
Everyday Jean leaves their home in Concession – in the Municipality of Clare, Digby County – and comes to the Villa Acadienne in Meteghan to spend time with his wife Emma who has been living here for two years. On this particular evening he later holds her in an embrace as they get up to dance, rocking back and forth to the song Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.
They’ve danced together many times before but this time is different.
It’s their first prom spent together and for everyone in the room it's a throwback to decades ago.
Clare natives Danielle LeBlanc and Briand Melanson, who now live in Toronto, have special ties to this seniors’ long-term care facility. Melanson’s father Alphonse Melanson lived here up until the time of his death. In addition to her father-in-law, LeBlanc’s Grammy Greta Comeau also resided here. LeBlanc says her Grammy would sometimes get lonely and Alphonse, living in the Alzheimer’s/dementia unit – and who lived his life as a talented musician – couldn’t play music anymore as the disease progressed.
Alphonse and Grammy – like the other residents – were well cared for by the Villa Acadienne staff. Still, it was hard to see how the years and their health had turned against them.
LeBlanc and Melanson’s lives have always been filled with music. Remembering her visits at Villa Acadienne, LeBlanc felt inspired and compelled to bring music back into the lives of seniors living in long-term care facilities, but in a unique way. With the help of friends – all volunteers – they launched an initiative called Twist and Shout Prom Night, in which they recreate a 1950s prom for the residents of seniors’ care facilities, along with their families and the staff.
They’ve held three proms in the Toronto area, but it meant a lot for the couple to bring one of these proms home.
And so on July 18, yellow, purple and white balloons and streamers were hung at the Villa Acadienne. Flowers adorned tables and corsages were brought in for the residents. Staff and volunteers had raided closets and Frenchy’s in search of dresses and clothing to be worn at the prom. Pictures of poodles were added to women’s skirts as a throwback to the era. Some residents had their hair and nails done by staff. The men were given clean shaves. Some were given bowties.
The team of volunteers from Toronto that have joined LeBlanc and Melanson for the trip to Nova Scotia for this prom are also being aided on the ground in Clare by more local volunteers and many businesses who stepped up to make the evening a special one.
It’s literally one giant prom committee – just without the yearbook photo.
In her room an hour-and-a-half before the prom starts, resident Rose Muise is excited. Brought up in Yarmouth, she’s never been to a prom before.
“I didn't have a prom, I went to the St. Ambrose school. They didn’t have one,” she says.
She says it’s “awesome” that people have made this special journey to do this for the residents.
As she’s getting ready for the prom she’s asked what colour lipstick she wants. She doesn’t hesitate.
The Villa staff is as excited as the residents as the time draws closer to the start of the prom. When the band – Bamtone and the BeBops – did their soundcheck earlier in the day it really started to sink in.
“We’re all ecstatic,” says Sarah Thompson, the recreation coordinator at the Villa Acadienne. “Honestly we feel so honoured and so grateful that they approached us and asked us if they could come here. As soon as we told everybody they thought it was a great idea. We just feel very lucky that this is happening.”
Outside in the hallway are other local volunteers Vickie Porter, Emma D’Eon and Julienne LeBlanc. They’re not just dressed for the part, they’re also wearing big smiles.
“I got in touch with Danielle. I said I would love to help in any way,” explains Porter, who rounded up some other volunteers. “I got in touch with some people who I thought would be enthusiastic about it.”
On this evening, enthusiasm is in big supply and you need look no further than Joseph O’Toole who is one of the volunteers and performers who has travelled from Toronto to be here. He says LeBlanc and Melanson’s family connection to this seniors’ residence makes this prom especially special. Plus he’s happy to be back on the East Coast since he’s originally from Cape Breton.
“I love to sing, I love to act and I love to dance. They said you’d be a perfect fit for the team,” O’Toole says in explaining how he came to be here aside from the plane ride and a long drive. He’s already participated in three proms with the team in Ontario but was really excited to be here in Meteghan. “Being from the East Coast I know how a community likes to support one another, especially when it’s something as uplifting as this.”
This is actually O’Toole’s ninth prom. When asked if he remembers his own prom he confesses he actually went to five of them, rotating between three suits.
“I was never Prom King,” he says, admitting he did briefly put tonight’s Prom King sash on.
“This was my one moment to shine,” he says laughing.
Later on he’ll get to shine again as he emcees the prom, and also performs the classic, ‘Runaround Sue.”
For Danielle LeBlanc and Briand Melanson, the evening could not be going any better. Before the prom starts they reflect on the time they spent visiting loved ones here.
“I remember coming here to visit my father and the impact that music had and Danielle came a few times and that’s where the idea came from,” says Melanson.
“It's nostalgia, but it’s just a chance for everybody – young, old, no matter what age – to experience a joyful evening here,” LeBlanc says.
Asked if they have a favourite song that they’ll be performing, LeBlanc says the waltzes always go over well – songs like Can’t Help Falling Love with You, and Sea of Love. “I really love singing Twist Again and Twist and Shout, but they also really love Blue Suede Shoes,” she says.
“I sing one that my father always used to sing and I learned it from him, it’s called Teddy Bear, an Elvis Presley song,” Melanson adds.
Later on in the evening when he finishes his rendition of Teddy Bear you can see him smiling and pointing upwards – no doubt a message to his dad that he’s here at this prom too.
Before the music starts a special presentation is made by Clare Warden Ronnie LeBlanc, who presents certificates to LeBlanc and Melanson thanking them for always continuing to be such great Clare ambassadors no matter where they are, what projects they undertake and for bringing this special event back home.
After this, it’s all about the music – and, they hope – making new memories and reliving old ones. Some residents get up and dance. Those whose mobility prevents that from happening sit and enjoy the music. Refreshments are served. A cake is brought out. When they’re not singing, the animation to the lyrics by LeBlanc and band member Stephanie Guest is spot on.
And then later – as Guest sings from the stage area – the tenderest of moments is observed as LeBlanc holds the hands of resident Aimee Addington, singing as well to the lyrics of Can’t Help Following in Love with You. LeBlanc gives the resident the gift of her time, her presence and one of the brightest and most compassionate smiles in the room. LeBlanc’s dance partner isn’t able to sway to the music, but as their hands are clasped Addington is also mouthing the lyrics with LeBlanc.
It's beyond adorable watching them connect through music.
O’Toole meanwhile – the fellow who never got to be Prom King – has the pleasure of announcing this evening’s prom king and queen.
Fittingly it’s Jean and Emma Cottreau, who are still holding hands – as they have been all evening. They get up for another dance, this one to the Everly Brothers’ All I Have to Do is Dream.
From those watching there is applause, there are cheers and there are even tears – not because it’s sad, but because the night is so moving.
Right up until the very last dance, it’s just a perfect evening.
At the end of the night the decorations are taken down, but not all of them. Some are left behind so the residents can continue to enjoy this moment.
LeBlanc, Melanson and their friends prepare for the trip back to Toronto.
They'll be packing clothing and belongings, but they’ll be leaving their hearts behind at the Villa.
Twist & Shout Prom Night’s team is looking into registering the organization as a Canadian charity.
The crew of volunteers have also set up a Go Fund Me page which can be found at www.gofundme.com/twist-amp-shout-prom-night for anyone who would like to make donations to help the team cover the costs of these events. Expenses include travel, car rentals, decorations, sashes for the Prom King and Queen, corsages and boutonnieres and band expenses.