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Theatrical Dance Class Lets Seniors and Their Instructors Act Young Again

By Emily Frost | July 30, 2015 2:43pm
 The Nia class for seniors is taught by volunteers affiliated with the JCC who are baby boomers looking to give back. 
Nia Class at JHL
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UPPER WEST SIDE — A group of seniors in their 70s and 80s is pretending to fight off a villain in a duel before riding away on horseback.

Members are holding one arm up and swaying it back and forth in mock sword fight, then thumping their feet rapidly on the ground as they ride into the imaginary sunset. Some smile wryly while others furrow their brows in concentration. 

The play fight was actually part of a movement class held Wednesday at Jewish Home Lifecare's West 106th Street building.

The group's instructors are not 20 or 30-somethings, but range in age from their late 40s to their late 70s. They are volunteering as part of a new pilot program from the JCC in Manhattan and UJA Federation of New York called Engage. 

The volunteers — many of whom are retirees, stay-at-home parents or part-time workers — wanted to give back locally, so they took a series of classes to learn an exercise technique called Nia.

Nia is a fusion of martial arts, dance and yoga, among other influences, that strives to offer moves that both heal the body and give it power, explained Caroline Kohles, 54, senior director of health and wellness at the JCC.

Because Nia is flexible and adaptive, participants can do whatever feels right at any given moment — which is great for the group of seniors using wheelchairs and with other mobility issues, she explained.

Nia is also expressive, with vocalizations and theatrical twists tossed in, ideal for more isolated seniors who aren't getting to express themselves as much, Kohles said. 

Without exercises like Nia, "they're not using their [mental and physical] capacity," she added.

The volunteers, who are often settling into retirement or looking for a new passion, also benefit from the experience.

"They're doing things they didn't think they could do," Kohles said of teaching a fitness class.

For volunteer Ellen Zimmerli, 49, Nia "isn't just an exercise class," she said.

"It's fun, it's sweaty, it's emotional, it can be silly," she explained. 

Additionally, the 33-year-old movement technique offers "an acceptance of what we are able to do with our bodies" that works well with an older population, Zimmerli said. 

While teaching her first group of seniors"was so scary," she recalled, Zimmerli formed a camaraderie with participants and her co-teachers.

"You see at the end of the class that [the seniors] are lit up," added volunteer Deborah Cavalcante, 43. 

JHL resident Rachel Weiss, 70, loves the humorous aspects of the class. 

"It's original. It's different every time," she said, adding that she wished the class was offered twice a week instead of just once.

Sometimes the instructors are older than their students, like Engage volunteer Roger Puckett, 78.

"I am the senior teaching seniors... it does make me feel younger," he said. 

Puckett has had his fair share of injuries and ailments, so "I know what [the residents] are going through," he said. 

For Miriam Levy, director of Community Life Activities at JHL's 106th Street building, the class represents "people continuing to live."

Demand for the class has been high and, if volunteers have more availability, JHL will consider offering a second class, said Levi.

"[The residents] want wellness. Just because somebody is in a nursing home doesn't mean they're not interested in that," she said.

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