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Three members of beloved Milwaukee Dancing Grannies among parade victims

With their pompoms and thigh-high skirts, the grandmothers had been entertaining crowds for decades.
Members of the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies entertain spectators during the South Milwaukee Heritage Days Parade on July 28, 2018.
Members of the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies entertain spectators during the South Milwaukee Heritage Days Parade on July 28, 2018.Scott Ash / Now News Group via USA TODAY Network

In her small Wisconsin city, Virginia Sorenson was a local celebrity. The choreographer for the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies — grandmothers who don matching short skirts and wave their pompoms to songs like “We Are Family” at parades — Sorenson was known for her generosity and the pep she put into performances.

“You met her, and she just had this sparkle about her,” said Michelle Meronk, who tutored Sorenson’s granddaughter and was frequently invited to family dinners with them. “She loved to give.”

Sorenson, 79, of Muskego, was one of five people killed Sunday and more than 40 people injured when an SUV rammed through the Waukesha Christmas parade, a cherished annual tradition in the Milwaukee suburb. On Tuesday, prosecutors announced a sixth person, a child, had died from their injuries.

Among those killed were two other members of the Dancing Grannies: Leanna Owen, 71, and Tamara Durand, 52. Another victim, Wilhelm Hospel, 81, assisted the group with their shows, according to The Associated Press.

“Our group was doing what they loved, performing in front of crowds in a parade putting smiles on faces of all ages, filling them with joy and happiness,” the Dancing Grannies said in a statement on their Facebook page Monday morning. “Those who died were extremely passionate Grannies.”

The group was founded in 1984 and keeps a busy schedule, performing in about 25 parades a year between Memorial Day and Christmas, its website said. There is just one requirement to join: You must be a grandmother.

When asked by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel what Sorenson liked about the group, her husband, David Sorenson, had a simple answer. 

“Everything,” he told the newspaper, adding that hip and back pain didn’t hold her back. “She liked the instructing. She liked the dancing and the camaraderie of the women. She liked to perform.”

Fellow member Owen helped lead the front of the group during performances, CBS News reported. Durand, meanwhile, was a new member of the Dancing Grannies. Sunday was her first parade performing with them, her husband, Dave Durand, told NBC News. 

“She danced her way through life, whether there was music or not,” he said. “She had all sorts of funny mixes about her. She’d eat Twinkies in the morning, and then she’d go run six miles, whether it’s 15 below or 85 above.”

The fifth person killed in Sunday’s tragedy, Jane Kulich, 52, was not part of the dancing troupe. Her daughter Taylor Smith, 29, of Waukesha, described Kulich to NBC News as a “goofball” who loved their weekly family game nights and “always cheered us all up.”

Authorities say the suspect, who has a lengthy criminal history and was out on bail, intentionally drove through the parade route after leaving a domestic disturbance scene. A motive has not been released.

In a Facebook post Tuesday morning, the Dancing Grannies thanked their supporters and said their injured members were in stable condition.

Dancing Grannies member Sharon Millard told NBC’s “TODAY” show Tuesday that the group would persevere and honor the memories of those killed.

“I think what I would like is for everyone to remember how much joy they brought to everyone,” she said. “It might take us a year to pull back and get more people to join. But I know in our hearts that we’re going to continue.”

The members have said their fans mean as much to them as they mean to their fans. In a 2016 interview with NBC affiliate WTMJ of Milwaukee, Holly Habeck, then 75 and a grandmother of two, described performing as invigorating.

“The crowds love us. It’s amazing. And what’s amazing is what that does to us,” she said. “Boy, that adrenaline starts going and you just want to do your very, very best.”

Just three months ago, Sorenson and the rest of the Dancing Grannies were interviewed by WDJT-TV of Milwaukee. Sorenson said choreographing the group helped her get through a recent surgery — even when she couldn’t dance.

“I love dancing, and now that I can’t with my surgery, it’s like I lost a best friend,” she said. “But the Dancing Grannies had a place for me here.”

“I love it. I love the ladies,” she added, tearing up. “They’re my family.”