Dancing class keeps seniors on their toes

The Baltimore Sun

The 10 people formed two lines facing forward in front of a large mirrored wall.

Dance instructor Irene Eddy flipped on a CD, found her place in a line and said, "This is the way the cowboys do the Charleston."

The dancers tapped their right toes twice to the right side, and then their left toes twice to the left. With a spin, they picked up the pace. The dancers moved in perfect harmony for about an hour and a half on a recent afternoon in the basement of the South Carroll Senior and Community Center in Sykesville.

The dancers, all senior citizens, were participating in an advanced line dancing class offered Wednesday afternoons at the center.

Socialization, staying mentally active and getting exercise are the top reasons that seniors participate in the class, said Eddy, 77, of Reisterstown, who began teaching line dancing about 10 years ago.

"There isn't much pumping of the heart," said Eddy, who teaches four days a week at three locations in the county. "But when we dance, we move a lot and we have a lot of fun. My greatest joy in life is to interact with my students."

There are also mental benefits for seniors who line dance, Eddy said.

"We dance one dance after the other," she said. "And we have to memorize and then send the steps down to our bodies. Of course, our bodies and minds aren't as young as they used to be. So it's an achievement when we do it successfully. It's wonderful to see people in their 60s, 70s and 80s out there dancing. "

Despite the prowess of some of the elderly dancers, Eddy is careful not to do steps to strain their aging bodies, she said.

"No matter what kind of condition we are in, we are still seniors," she said. "There are steps that could cause a dancer to twist an ankle or something, and I don't do them. I've never had any of my students get hurt."

One dancer said the classes help him give his ailing sciatic nerve - which runs from the lower back down the back of the leg - a good workout.

Although he wasn't sure he would ever learn to line dance when he started, Edward Nichols, 78, decided to try it for a year and see what happened.

He decided that if he couldn't do it after a year, he would quit. Early on, his first teacher encouraged him to do just that, but he stuck with it.

Eight years later, he's not only dancing about eight hours a week with various groups, he also teaches a class.

"I was told it was good for my joints and not really hard," said Nichols, taking a break during a recent class. "When Irene shows the others how to do slow steps, I know I sit out. It hurts if we go too slow. And I don't do some of the more difficult dances, but I can do most of them."

Fellow dancer Ann Davis also had difficulty learning to line dance, but she, too, decided not to give up. One of her biggest peeves is seeing someone come in and try once and leave, she said.

"When I started, I thought I would never be able to learn to line dance," said the 74-year-old Eldersburg resident, who danced ballet as a child. "I told myself I couldn't do it. But I did. I think the secret is that if you want to be successful at it, you need to watch people do it before you come out and try it."

She attributes a lack of perseverance to a decline in the number of seniors dancing in the class.

"I get so frustrated because I know that people aren't giving it a chance," said Davis, who has seen as many as 40 or more dancers in the class. "Some people give up too soon. If they will just come in and observe, they will probably enjoy it."

Fran Magill, 77, agreed.

Magill began dancing more than a decade ago in Georgia. When she moved to Maryland she went to the center, saw the class and immediately joined.

Magill likes any activity that appeals to her love of dance and body movement, she said.

"I love all sorts of dancing - ballroom, clogging, and tap," said the Eldersburg resident. "I hear music and I just get up and go. I think I was born to dance."

Beyond her love of dancing, Magill participates in the class because it keeps her body going, she said.

While undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoma three years ago, Magill felt energetic for one week a month. During that week she danced.

It was not only therapeutic, it gave her something to focus on rather than her illness, she said.

"I didn't sit still," she said. "It was my way of expelling my energy, and it was a distraction from my illness. It didn't matter to me if we danced a slow dance or a fast dance. I just liked being able to flow so easily.

"Line dancing doesn't take the pain away when you get old and have health issues. But it does give you a chance to forget your illnesses, at least for a while."

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