Dancing alone: A senior center keeps clients up and moving

WASHINGTON — Dance instructor Lola Jaramillo switches the radio to an uplifting salsa song.

“My students love this one,” says Jaramillo, dancing to the rhythm of “Life is a Carnival” and encouraging her class to follow her steps.


But her students -- mostly older Hispanics -- are not around. Instead, a video camera records her in an empty room.

Her elderly students are huddled in their homes, following orders to protect themselves from the new coronavirus, which hits older people especially hard. And in their homes, they can dance along with Jaramillo, getting the exercise that is so important to maintaining their health and mobility.


The dance lesson was shared on the social media accounts of a nonprofit senior center in Washington that has been serving the capital’s older Hispanic community for over 50 years.

Since mid-March, Vida Senior Center has recorded the exercise classes, most of which are taught in Spanish. The effort aims to keep older adults engaged during the pandemic with a touch of Latin flair.

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“There is no physical connection now, but there is an emotional connection and we’re trying to do this in different ways,” says Blanche Cotlear, the center’s executive director.

Besides exercise videos, the group has also recorded their nutrition tips and relaxation classes and shared information about COVID-19 in Spanish.

The center also usually provides services such as free meals and health screenings, and has adapted to provide those things during the crisis as well: It is offering medication monitoring and counseling sessions over the phone, and coordinating the delivery of meals to almost 200 of the more vulnerable clients.

Cotlear says feeding the social media accounts with video classes was a creative way to keep her clients company in times of social distancing, when many might feel isolated and scared.

“We are the second home for many, many Hispanic seniors,” especially those who are low-income who have no family nearby or whose relatives live abroad, she said.

Jovina Guillén de León, a 67-year-old from the Dominican Republic who attends Vida Senior Center, recently followed one of the online exercise classes in her kitchen while her roommate filmed her moving around.


“We have to thank God for the years we’ve lived,” says De León. “And also do our part by telling family members that in life, everything passes.”