Sessions get seniors dancing

“Once I reached the intermediate level of ballroom, I wanted to start teaching people with a handicap”

A group of dancers is using passion for the ballroom by encouraging seniors at Columbia View Lodge to cha-cha-cha their way into fitness every Wednesday.

The energetic sessions began in September when dance enthusiast John Orr, a retired Teck pipe fitter, approached the facility’s recreation therapist with an offer to cut-a-rug with residents for an hour each week.

“Once I reached the intermediate level of ballroom, I wanted to start teaching people with a handicap,” said Orr, in his thick Glaswegian accent. “After I had an interview with Margot (Wright, rec therapist), she thought it would be a great idea to come up here.”

Orr is a familiar face in Trail’s volunteer community, having spent countless hours coaching kids on the soccer field and running in the Silver City Day marathons and Terry Fox Run every fall.

Two years ago, he decided to switch out his white sneakers for a pair of black ballroom shoes and brought his enthusiasm for rhythmic step to the community’s seniors after completing lessons under the tutelage of Louis Martinelli, a Castlegar dance teacher.

“I said I’d come up to Columbia View for a month and give it a try,” he explained. “Now, as you can see, we can’t stop it.”

What began as a small gathering in the lodge’s common room with Orr and dance partner Hanne Smith leading the way, has grown into more than 30 avid seniors ready to jive on two feet or with the assistance of a four-wheeled walker, or by tapping toes from the safety of a wheelchair.

For Ted Wiltshire, an 88-year resident at the lodge, Wednesday evenings evoke happy memories of a time when he and his wife would “nightclub it in the valley.”

These days, Wiltshire is confined to a wheelchair, but that doesn’t deter the longtime Rosslander from having a good time because he can move his feet to the music, sway his arms to the tunes, and dance from his chair when Smith floats by.

“We used to do a lot of dancing and this brings me back,” he said, eyes twinkling. “We used to love the music and it feels good to dance.

“This brings back good memories,” Wiltshire added. “It really does that.”

Besides drawing people out of their rooms to be part of the fun, Orr’s midweek dance classes have also drawn a handful of partners from his regular “Tuesday Night Dancers” group out of the KP Hall, and up to the seniors’ home to be part of the action.

“They wanted to come up to see what I was doing,” said Orr. “They liked it so much they asked if they could come every week.”

The evening opens with the dancers welcoming the seniors with smiles, banter and handshakes, and quickly moves into warm up exercises under the steady foot of volunteer Janice Alexander.

Alexander, dressed to the nines and donning strappy dance shoes, guides the residents through in-chair stretches that progress from head-to-toe, accompanied by soulful Louis Armstrong recordings to jazzy Broadway show tunes.

As the songs pick up the beat, so does the party atmosphere.

Those who can stand, centre in the room to jive, do the hokey-pokey and flap their arms for the ever popular chicken dance.

Nobody is left out as Orr and his fellow dancing partners weave through the gathering to encourage dancing and movement from seated residents and those in wheelchairs.

“Our residents really look forward to this,” said Monty Roblin, the facility’s recreation aide. “And it keeps getting bigger every week.”

Although Orr and his troupe offer their time for the love of ballroom dance and to give back to the community, recent studies show that dancing can help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia and lessen the risk of severe falls.

According to a 2009 report by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), a little bit of physical activity each day can help minimize the risk of dementia as much as 40 per cent.

There’s not a list of specific exercises that work better than others, but there is one form of activity that seems to combine a lot of different factors that might be the most effective.

That activity is ballroom dancing and the reason given is that the combination of music and exercise may stimulate and increase cognitive arousal while promoting social engagement.