Linda Sorel was supposed to go to school. Instead, without telling her mother, she took her practice clothes and went to the Capitol Theatre on Broadway. “They played music and I danced and I got hired, and from then on I never went back to school.” She said she has been a dancer her entire life, and that audition landed her with the dance troupe Chester Hale Girls. She was later one of the Rockettes at the opening of Radio City Music Hall in 1932. But the view from the stage only begins to scratch the surface of what she has seen.
Sorel has lived through both World Wars, the advent of refrigerators and electric lightbulbs, raising 10 cats, decades of inflation and, more recently, laryngitis. She will celebrate her centennial Nov. 28, marking 100 years of spirit and adventure.
“I’m a mere hundred,” she said. “I don’t feel any different now than I felt when I was 35.” The five-foot woman gestures with almost every word, her silver nail polish sweeping through the air.
James Ciervo, the director of therapeutic recreation and community relations at Sorel’s nursing home, said the new centenarian is still as “sharp as a tack.”
Sorel spends much of her time feeding birds outside Port Jefferson Health Care on Dark Hollow Road and writing poetry. One of her poems, about a cat named “Gigi,” she can recite by heart. Another describes how it felt to be a Rockette: “The overture is over, the curtains tightly drawn, as we await in the wings, the signal to go on.” She said she also writes poems for people she cares about, such as the nurses who take care of her.
Although she often finds herself busy, Sorel set aside time to reminisce and talk about how different things were when she was younger. She was born and raised in Manhattan and Brooklyn, after her grandparents emigrated with their two little girls to the United States from Bialystok at a time when it was part of the Russian Empire. She was raised by those two little girls, her mother and Aunt Ada.
When Sorel was a kid, the family wouldn’t go to supermarkets for food. She said there were merchants with horse-drawn carts who would go along the cobblestone streets and sell them groceries, which they would store at home in an ice box, not a refrigerator. There were also no electric lights. Sorel remembered that people would light outdoor lamps on posts using a long stick, and when one of her older sisters died at 11, during the Spanish Flu epidemic, a gas light in the hallway was turned low for mourning.
One of the things she misses most about those days was the cheap candy. Sorel recalled spending only a penny to get a piece of chocolate-covered jelly, and said she enjoyed going to a local ice cream parlor, sitting on a tall chair and buying an ice cream soda, which was served in generous portions.
But she has memories from that time that are not as happy. Sorel said during World War I, she was “a tiny little girl and the sirens would go off” in Manhattan to warn of a possible air raid. The family would close the blinds, turn out the lights and get away from the windows. “Oh, the Germans are coming over here,” she remembered fearing. But they never did and the sirens would stop.
When she was older, in her early 20s, Sorel got her big break dancing with the Rockettes, although she said she enjoyed ballet more. With the Rockettes, she had a strict routine. “I loved to put my own feeling into it, and you had to do what everyone else did.”
After her professional dancing days were over, in the late 1960s, she moved to Patchogue, where she had spent weekends as a kid, and remained there until relocating to the nursing home. With her 100th birthday approaching, Sorel revealed her secret to longevity. She said she has been on a diet her entire life, never touching any food between meals and staying away from fats and starches. However, she has a weak spot: chocolate, and the darker the better.
In advance of her centennial celebration, Linda Sorel remained focused on her great-nephew Danny and politics — the only thing she said she would miss “Dancing with the Stars” to watch.
As for Danny, Sorel said she received a letter from her great-nephew recently and wanted to show everybody. She talked about how grown-up he is now. But when he was little, the centenarian remembered, the boy would call out, “‘Look, Aunt Linda!” “And he would do these crazy things,” Sorel said, flailing her arms. “And I would look.”