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.
Stretching is most effective after class when the muscles are warm, says Dr. Deb Kegelmeyer. Here are ways to modify a hamstring stretch.
Beginners: Sit on the edge of a chair. One leg remains bent and the other is straight. Flex the foot of the straightened leg. Use the imagery of taking the belly button to the leg while looking diagonally. Keep the back straight and bend at the hips. This isolates the hamstrings as arms reach toward the foot to amplify the stretch. Hold for 60 seconds. Relax and repeat up to five times before switching to the other leg.
Intermediate: Stand with the left hand on the barre. Flex the right foot (working leg) slightly in front of the body and bend the left standing knee. Use the free arm to reach forward and use the imagery of taking the belly button to the leg while looking up. Most of the weight should be on the standing leg. Hold for 60 seconds. Relax and repeat up to five times before switching sides.
Advanced: Stand and flex the right foot and bend the left standing knee. Use both arms to reach forward and use the imagery of taking the belly button to the leg while looking up. Hold for 60 seconds. Relax and repeat up to five times before switching sides.