The Birth of an Elder Dance Teacher | Judith Sachs

My father had one job his entire life. He was a doctor until he “retired” at 91. Whereas, I have had a bunch of careers. I started as a dancer/actor, became an editor, then wrote preventive health books with doctors, served as a product spokesperson, coached corporate executives in pitching and presentation, and worked as a creative director at a pharmaceutical marketing agency.

At 60, I needed a hip replacement, and my physical life suddenly became paramount. Suppose I could never dance again? Suppose I had to be confined to a wheelchair or walker? I needed the procedure, but I needed my physical freedom more. After surgery and rigorous physical therapy with a task master who reminded me of the old Russian ballet masters of my past, I knew my mission in life was to make sure that older adults kept dancing and moving. I got certified as a Silver Sneakers instructor and worked at senior centers, keeping people active as an upbeat exercise facilitator. The program, though rather rigid and boring, taught me a lot about speaking my instructions while I showed the movements, which is essential for students who aren’t accustomed to learning physical patterns.  And then I heard about Dance for Parkinsons, where I could actually teach dance classes to people with movement disorders. I jumped at the opportunity to get trained. I felt it would also be a good way to get me back to my own dance practice.

The program started 14 years ago when the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group attended Mark Morris performances and asked Morris and David Leventhal (who became the director of the program), if they could structure a real dance class for people with Parkinson’s. Since a dancer has to think about how a limb moves, where to place and hold a beat, how to change rhythm quickly and slowly, it seemed logical that dancers would really understand the challenge of movement disorders.

Lifting an arm can be legato or staccato; it can be effortful or dreamy. Walking forward typically makes the walker swing his arms, but with the loss of dopamine that occurs in Parkinson’s disease, this natural swing stops. You have to put the opposite arm out consciously when your foot strikes down.

The training had nothing to do with exercise or physical therapy. There is a big difference between encouraging people to stretch and move for their health and treating them as dancers. We ask our students to pay attention to the breath, to foot and arm position, to the artistic rendering of a phrase, whether it’s syncopated or on the beat. And because these dancers are older and have a lifetime of moving behind them, teaching has to be very different. They aren’t getting graded as kids might be; they’re not teens in competition with one another for a dance scholarship. They learn because it’s fascinating and it’s a challenge and because they love the music we select for class—everything from Big Band and Motown to Tchaikovsky and Dave Brubeck.

We start our classes with everyone seated in chairs, then (if they can) standing behind the chair, using it as a ballet barre, and finally, moving across the floor. Even those in wheelchairs and walkers can be assisted in the general floor patterns.

Each teacher brings his or her own dance background to the program. Although we have certain Mark Morris “standards” that we all teach, we can design our own choreography and use the styles we’re most familiar with. (I was trained in Flamenco and Bharata Natyam (Southern Indian) dance, so I mix in a little of that along with Broadway jazz like Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse, and modern dance, as well as ballet, tap, and ballroom.) Right now, I’m doing an adaptation of Alvin Ailey’s “Fix Me” from Revelations with my one of my classes.

We simply borrow, steal and re-cast the more difficult steps, turns, and choreographic patterns and chunk up the movement, teaching a little bit in each class and then adding on. I have to say that all my non-dancers are really becoming dancers! I have students in their 80s and 90s who remember tap and ballet class from their youth, so I’m not really starting from scratch.

After a year with Dance for Parkinson’s, I took the class format and changed it slightly to work with people who simply sit a lot of the time—they are elderly or disabled or coming back from an illness or injury.  I was also asked this year if I would teach movement for people with dementia. No matter whom I teach, my goal is to get people to recognize something in the music I’m playing that engages them and gets them moving. I use props such as balls, maracas, pinwheels and scarves to amplify whatever their body wants to do. I have finally found what I want to be when I grow up. At 66, I am feeling my way toward the best job I’ve ever had. I hope to be dancing with my crew at 90!

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