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Bellerose woman Virginia Werner wins Ms. New York Senior America title with belly-baring dance performance

Virginia Werner, a Bellerose resident and Long Island

Virginia Werner, a Bellerose resident and Long Island native, performs a saber dance to "Caravan Sword Dance" at Ethel Bennett's Ms. New York Senior America pageant at Lindenhurst High School. Werner won first place and is Ms. New York Senior America 2013. (May 5, 2013) Credit: Ann Luk

In a bejeweled and revealing costume that plenty of younger women might even shy away from, Virginia Werner, 65, carved a place for herself into the elite group of women who can call themselves Ms. New York Senior America.

Werner, of Bellerose, won Sunday Ethel Bennett’s Ms. New York Senior America pageant with her enchanting saber dance performance -- done in harem pants and a crop top -- and positive philosophy on life.

The Ms. New York Senior America pageant is for women who are 60 and older. It showcases their talents and strives to change the perception of aging.

“There’s a lot of life and a lot of fun left,” Werner said about aging.

Participants in the pageant are also inducted into the Cameo Club, in association with the national Senior America organization, which provides volunteer performances for nursing homes, veteran’s and children’s hospitals.

Werner said she looks forward to showcasing Middle Eastern dance routines alongside the talents of other Cameo Club members. Werner owned a volunteer dance troupe for 25 years, until 2009, and wanted to participate in the pageant as a way to return to performing.

There were 10 contestants in New York this year, some of whom had never stepped on a stage before.

“I think about the time when I was in grammar school and I chose to take a zero on a book report because I wouldn’t get in front of the class; I was so nervous,” said contestant Donna Graziano, of Brentwood. “So I said ‘No. You’re going to get in front of the class; this is the time. You’re going to get in front of the people.’ ”

Graziano, 62, showcased her talents by playing classical guitar in front of more than one hundred audience members, and placed fourth in the competition.

“It gets better and better every year — the caliber of the women. They’re educated, sophisticated and more talented,” said Helen Haplin McCarney, Ms. New York Senior America 2005. “Just as our society is evolving, women are becoming more empowered.”

McCarney, from Manhasset, also won the national Ms. Senior America pageant in 2005.

Marleen Schuss, the director of Ethel Bennett’s Ms. New York Senior America since 2006, hosted the evening with her granddaughter, Chiara Klein. Between contestants’ performances, the Seasoned Steppers, a dance troupe of women who are 60 years of age or older, tap-danced to popular Frank Sinatra hits.

“Women are not sitting in their rocking chair at 60. They’re out and volunteering and must empower other women. Life begins at 60,” Schuss said.

As the winner, Werner will also make appearances across the country to promote the Ms. New York Senior America pageant and encourage women to feel confident with age. In October, winners from each state will compete for the national title in Atlantic City.

“They’re at a second stage in their life and 60 is the new 50,” said pageant judge Judy Bolton, 56, who was a preliminary judge for Miss America. “Now it’s their turn and they’re reaching for it.”

Bolton and other judges, Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Kathleen Keating, Victoria Meyerhoffer, Robert Geltman and Kent Drake determined the winner based on who was the most articulate, determined, personable, relatable and confident. Bolton said she looked for someone that could carry herself for the state of New York, who was world-classed and cultured.

The revenue collected from ticket sales and raffles go to the Cameo Club to continue performances.

Marie Mango, Ms. New York Senior America 2003 and backstage manager of the pageant, said the pageant proves a lot about senior women.

“This is proof, once again, that senior women of age 60 or older are still a valuable part of our society,” she said.

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