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A year after tragedy, the Dancing Grannies ‘celebrate life’ in return to the Waukesha Christmas parade

By Eric Levenson and Kat Jennings, CNN

Betty Streng does not remember much of last year’s Waukesha Christmas parade — or, as she calls it, a “half-a-parade.”

It was the 64-year-old’s first Christmas parade as a member of the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies, the charmingly rocking group of older women looking for exercise, friendship and the roar of the crowd. She recalls the excitement of putting on her blue-and-white outfit and dancing to four or five songs without any mistakes.

“It was great and the crowd was awesome,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, they’re cheering. They’re really happy and enjoying themselves.’

“And after that, I don’t remember anything. And the next thing I remember is Thanksgiving in the hospital.”

Her memory blocked out the horrors of that day, November 21, when a man intentionally drove an SUV onto the parade route and struck 68 different people in all. Six people were killed, including four affiliated with the Dancing Grannies: Virginia “Ginny” Sorenson, 79; Leanna “Lee” Owen, 71; Tamara Durand, 52; and Wilhelm “Bill” Hospel, an 81-year-old group helper whose wife was a member.

Streng herself was left with two skull fractures and bleeding of the brain, and she spent two weeks in the hospital and was using a walker into February.

But she’s worked herself back into dancing shape, and on Sunday at 4 p.m. she will return to the scene of the tragedy with the Dancing Grannies to forge new memories with this year’s Waukesha Christmas parade.

Now in its 59th year, the 2022 version of the parade will feature a number of odes and memorials to last year’s tragedy. The theme is “Peace on Earth,” the grand marshal will be a group representing “All First Responders,” and toward the front will be the Dancing Grannies.

In all, 17 Dancing Grannies are expected to march, with Streng and three others who attended last year’s event dancing at the front of the group. Speaking to CNN days before the event, Streng said she looked forward to going back.

“Why not?” she told CNN. “It’s something I worked for. I learned these dances to become an official Granny, and I enjoy doing it, so why wouldn’t I go back to doing something I enjoy?

“I hope it brings joy and hope,” she added. “We celebrate life and celebrate the lives of those we lost, celebrate our own life, that we get to continue on and do what we love and what brings us joy.”

How this year’s parade will be different

This year’s parade, again put on by the Waukesha Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by Ascension Hospitals, includes a slightly altered route and added safety plans.

The 1-mile route still travels along Main Street in downtown Waukesha, per tradition, but it is now more compact and structured like a loop, with the start and end at opposite sides of Cutler Park, according to parade coordinator Janelle Andrews.

“A big reason for that is better containment with the Police Department, Fire Department, Department of Public Works,” she said. “So they adjusted the route just to make it easier and safer and able to block off more roads heading into the parade.”

A heavy police presence will be in place and there will be more volunteers helping carry out the event. In addition, the city purchased modular vehicle barriers to block off roads along the parade route and to protect crowds from vehicles, the city said.

The parade will be televised for the first time by CNN affiliate WTMJ for those not comfortable attending.

Andrews said the community interest in the parade has soared in the past year. Last year, there were under 60 groups in the parade; this year, about 120 groups reached out to participate, but organizers had to cap the total at 80 due to space and timing limitations, she said.

On Sunday, the parade will be led by a memorial float with six large snowflakes in honor of each of the victims. The grand marshal will come next with the banner held by the fire chief, police chief and the mayor. And then the Grannies will arrive to get the party started.

“What we are expecting to happen is when the memorial float goes by, we’re assuming the crowds will have, in their own way, a moment of silence and remembrance,” Andrews said. “Then with the Dancing Grannies shortly after and the grand marshal, we think there will be a lot of cheering and a good transition into this year’s parade.”

‘It just means a lot’

Jean Knutson, a 62-year-old Dancing Granny since 2015, opted out of last year’s parade to attend a Green Bay Packers game with friends and family.

“It was a lot of survivor’s guilt because the way I would have been positioned in the lineup, I would have been right behind Lee Owen, who was killed in the tragedy,” she said.

The deaths of Sorenson and Owen, the group coaches, left a leadership vacuum at the top of the group, so she and Jan Kwiatkowski have tried to fill that void as co-leaders in the past year. Only seven Grannies remain from before the attack — the “Original Grannies,” as they refer to themselves — and they have welcomed in 12 new grandmothers to the group.

Knutson said she had mixed feelings ahead of the parade.

“I’m sure it’s going to be a mixed bag of emotions but I am looking forward to it. Just the love and support of the community, not just locally but statewide, the country, the world. Everybody has been so supportive of us,” she told CNN. “It truly is an honor to be in this group now, and wearing that blue and white Christmas uniform costume is awesome. It just means a lot.”

She said she still hears Sorenson and Owen’s coaching directions in her head and will be thinking of them Sunday.

“Just knowing that they would be so proud of us right now, that we did try to bring this group and continue going forward,” Knutson said.

Kwiatkowski told CNN’s Amara Walker the group “vowed to keep on dancing” in the wake of the attack, and the parade will bring mixed emotions.

“I’m sure we will be laughing, I’m sure there’s parts of the parade we’re going to be crying,” she said.

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CNN’s Christina Zdanowicz and Michelle Watson contributed to this report.

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