Dancing Home to Me

My experience in the SERCCA dance project
by Jacqui Penson

It is the tiniest of ads, tucked away in the “Community Notices” section of the paper, but it springs at me like a banner headline: “Free Dance Classes for adults 55+.” Despite earnest worries about what is in store (what if the classes require spandex?) I summon the courage and call. A pleasant voice answers the phone. Within minutes I hear myself making arrangements to participate in what I learn is a dance research project with older adults through Sheridan College’s Elder Research Centre (SERC). And it’s pretty much come as you are – works for me!

The first day, I locate the studio and tentatively open the door. I am really quite anxious. Seeing the mirrors, the barre, the piano, I am transported back in time. As a child, I had fallen in love with ballet – the music and movement carried me away. Somehow when I danced, I felt safe, I felt special – I felt like ‘Me.’ Later, as a young woman, exhausted after a day’s work, I would don black leotard, red skirt, and leg warmers to stretch body and soul on a dance floor.

Brought back to the studio, I see individuals of every age and stage (55 plus, that is!), size and shape, clustered here and there chatting. I make a mental note – no spandex in sight – I like it already!

We learn that, because this is a research project, we must go through a series of simple pre-test measurements of things like flexibility, balance, muscle strength and complete some questionnaires and an interview. I am so pleased to be part of something bigger and at this point, if I can coax this aging body into a studio twice a week to dance AND contribute to science – well, even better!

The first day of class arrives and as we wait in the studio, there are nervous whispers, faint anxiety, quiet laughter and tense anticipation.

Our teacher reminds us that this time is an investment in our well-being, in caring for ourselves and honouring who we are and the road we (and our bodies!) have travelled. Above all, it is about having FUN! We need to lose that inner self-critical voice (someone quips maybe they could cover up the mirrors!) relax and enjoy the moment.

We take our places at the ‘barre’ and the class begins. The teacher demonstrates and explains the how and especially the ‘why’ of each exercise and most importantly, how to work around our various physical challenges. Clearly the name of the game here is not being ‘perfect’ but rather how to work with our bodies and still reap the benefit of this graceful form of movement. She watches carefully, keenly focused on ensuring that no one gets hurt, offering a modification here, a suggestion there and tons of gentle encouragement. I think to myself – this woman really ‘gets it’!

We work our way through pliés, relevés, tendus and grande battements and then move to the centre of the room for ‘floorwork’ (now without the security of the ‘barre’!). Once we’re oriented we move across the floor, this time to the soaring strains of a Viennese waltz. We are dancing and it is joyous, freeing and just plain fun!

There’s a sense of “we’re all in this together” – no room for ‘prima ballerinas’ here – we’ve travelled varied paths to arrive at this point in time – and the room is rich with the collective strengths, passions and humour of those who have survived to tell the tale!

At first, I feel clumsy and unsure and my brain is working overtime to remember everything – but it is okay. As the class progresses, my anxiety slowly ebbs and I feel the music lift and transport me. Something deep, long-buried and forgotten is stirring, but all too soon it is over and we clap in appreciation. I grab my keys and fly out the door.

The Thursday class is more of a jazz/modern dance. Compared to ballet, this presents a challenge to move outside my ‘comfort zone’, to become aware of and fully inhabit my body in a grounded way. After warm-up exercises, we learn a little ‘combo’ to Liza Minelli’s “Bye, Bye, Birdie.” I don’t remember ever having laughed so much in a dance class! As we ‘step-ball-change’ and ‘sugar’ our way across the floor I can feel inhibitions gradually falling away as our teacher exhorts us to “put it out there!”

The weeks fly by and I feel my body and brain respond. I feel stronger, balance is improving and joints that just a few short weeks ago felt like they required a shot of “WD-40,” begin to loosen up.

Even more significant though, is the feeling of well-being by the end of class. None of us can explain it. We know about ‘endorphins’ and the benefits of exercise but this is something more than that, something almost mystical. For 60 minutes twice a week the world fades away. Whatever cares have silently accompanied us into the studio seem to dissipate as the music, the movement – and yes, the laughter – capture us and carry us away.

I realize that for me, being in these dance classes has become an exercise in déjà vu – a reconnecting with and reclaiming of an essential part of who I was – who I am – lost through time and circumstance. I am dancing home to ‘Me.’

And I am – still – in love with dance.

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