Senior Moves: Expand Enrollment by Offering Modified Dance Classes for Older Adults

Photo: ©iStockphoto.com/Daniel Laflor

In the next few decades, the elderly population will increase—a result of the postwar baby boom. This is an opportunity for an enrollment boom at your studio. "People stay healthy by moving, and dance appeals aesthetically by adding another level to the cognitive experience," says Andrew Jannetti, a New York City dancer, choreographer and adjunct instructor at New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study, who has been teaching older adults for over 20 years.

Dance provides health benefits for those 65 and older, improving short-term memory through memorization of steps, maintaining heart health through physical activity and providing brain stimulation through socialization. Dance also helps with flexibility and coordination, which reduces the risk of falling. But before adding a class for this age group, you'll need to create a safe curriculum to meet their needs.


Your class structure will depend on the activity level of your students. For a group of fairly inactive adults, your goal may be to increase activity level with heightened endurance, balance and body awareness, but not necessarily to reach a target heart rate, says Dr. Deb Kegelmeyer, associate professor of clinical allied medicine in the Division of Physical Therapy at Ohio State University. More active adults may anticipate a traditional ballet, modern or jazz technique. Jannetti teaches an hour-long class designed for a combined group, including fluid stretches, center combinations based in jazz, and a yoga-inspired cooldown.

Be aware of students' physical limitations and fears, regardless of previous dance experience. Some may feel uncomfortable turning or jumping, and you can meet their needs without these technical elements. Ask if there are health issues before beginning, and tailor class accordingly. Anyone with heart disease should consult their physician before dancing. "Tell them that if something is too difficult or causes pain or fear of falling, they should not do it," Kegelmeyer says. As a precaution, Jannetti advises teachers to become CPR-certified.

Take time to explain steps slowly and clearly, and repeat them as needed. "If they don't understand the steps, it's not because they didn't listen. They need to process each piece," Kegelmeyer says. "It's kind of like the RAM in your computer. Older adults take smaller chunks of information, process them and put them together to get to the same big chunk."

Attracting an Older Clientele

If you're thinking of starting a class for seniors try these tips to help fill it.

- Give incentives to students who persuade a grandparent to try a class.

- Offer a free trial class and discounts on pre-paid class cards.

- Make flyers for local retirement homes, senior centers and places of worship.

- Consider using a word other than "elderly" when advertising your class. People in their mid-60s often don't identify with that term, and you may draw in additional students in a younger age range if you try "senior," "mature" or "older adults."

If you decide to start a class—or are looking to enhance an existing one—here are some exercises designed or modified with older dancers in mind.

Balance Balls and Balloons

Andrew Jannetti recommends using balance balls as tools for a "social activity that allows people with limitations to feel active, while engaging their core and finding their balance." He also says that the eye-hand coordination involved is important for cognitive enhancement and acuity. This exercise is a warm-up for students with little dance experience.

1. Four to six students sit in a circle on fitness balls. Practice sitting and lifting one foot at a time for balance. Then do a series of pelvic tilts (forward, backward and side to side) to help warm up the core.

2. Once students feel secure, introduce a balloon. Have them try to keep it in the air while passing it around the circle or randomly to each other.

3. If students feel secure with one balloon, add another, up to three.


Next Page
Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.