Kicking their heels, Madrid's elderly dance alone

Madrid (AFP) –


Alone inside her spacious living room, Marichu is swept away by the music, arms aloft, as she taps out a Sevillana, a flamenco-like dance that is normally performed in pairs or a group.

"We must be patient, be prudent," this 74-year-old widow tells herself of the coronavirus epidemic ravaging Spain, which is suffering the world's second most deadly outbreak after Italy.

Marichu, whose real name is Maria Zabala, is part of a lively group of pensioners who meet up three times a week to tend their urban allotment behind a church in the historic centre of Madrid.

But all that came to a halt when the government ordered an unprecedented lockdown on March 14 to curb the epidemic which has claimed over 9,000 lives and infected more than 100,000 people, with the Madrid the worst-hit region.

Leaving her door half open, an AFP photographer stationed a good distance away was able to get a brief glimpse into Marichu's private world.

"We'll get through this," says Marichu, who has five children and 12 grandchildren and who used to attend weekly Sevillana classes at a centre for the elderly before the lockdown.

But she's not given up, the vibrant guitar rhythms and staccato beat of castanets filling her apartment as she goes through the choreographed motions of Spain's most popular folk dance.

When she's not dancing, she can be found cutting up old milk cartons, filling them with soil and planting tomato and cucumber seed that may one day find their way into her urban allotment.

- 'Well prepared for lockdown' -

Sharing her passion for plants is 81-year-old Mercedes Aceituno, whose balcony is filled to overflowing with all manner of greenery.

Born in the southwestern region of Extremadura, she went to Madrid at 18 and worked as a maid before opening a shop selling dried fruit and nuts.

"I spent 40 years in my tiny fruit and nut shop... so I'm used to being shut up in a tiny space," she says.

People age well in Spain, which has an average life span of 83.3 years, one of the highest in the world after Japan, Switzerland and Italy.

But as the virus has swept through the population, its effect on the elderly has been singular, with the vast majority of the dead over the age of 70.

So Mercedes no longer leaves her third-floor apartment, and a neighbour does her shopping, leaving it outside the front door -- with Mercedes thanking her with home-made Spanish omelettes.

- 'Don't stay in pyjamas' -

For Spain's nearly 47 million population, lockdown is the new normal, with the health ministry issuing daily updates on the numbers, along with a few other pearls of wisdom: "don't spend all day in your pyjamas" and "don't watch too much news".

"It's not good for your head" all that news on television, says Doris Blas, a lively 65-year-old in a red jumper who is also part of the gardening group.

"It doesn't help to keep thinking about the number of dead and how dreadful it is."

She doesn't watch the news, preferring to read novels or phone her friends and family, as well as watching a daily mass online and praying.

"We must use this time to slow down," she reflects.

"We're always saying we don't have time to think... Then this bug turns up and puts us in our place. When that happens, we realise we're not as strong as we thought."

When the three avid gardeners will meet again is anyone's guess -- but they're looking forward to it.

"When it calms down, we'll definitely get together for a beer," says Marichu.

"We'll sit in the sun and talk about everything we've been doing and make plans for the allotment -- which makes us all feel alive."