Sit Down and Move!

ANYONE CAN DANCE invites you--no matter your age or physical ability, to consider dance as a beneficial and delicious way to recapture your sense of self and have a lot more fun than you have in a long time.

Patterned on the template of Dance for PD®, developed in collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson's Group, ANYONE CAN DANCE is a program for those who never danced before or who don't care if they're doing pirouettes, the Shim Sham or a Bob Fosse jazz routine. These classes begin in a chair, move to a support (a barre or chair back) and then proceed across the floor - with the most varied and eclectic music Judith can offer!

I am your mirror image...

This is what I say as a dance teacher facing the class or a private student, to make it easier for them to follow the steps and moves. I lift my left hand and say, “Lift your right hand,” because I’m facing them and want them to pretend they are looking in a mirror.


Norman Rockwell, Mirror

Like Harpo Marx, dancing with himself and his harp, all you have to do is pretend that the arm across from you is your arm; the elbow on the other side is your elbow. You don’t have to think about what to do!


But it often occurs to me that I am also trying to mirror what they feel as well as what they see. When I have a dancer who is elderly and depressed, I am trying to make her into my mirror image, as I portray younger and upbeat. I want her, looking into my face and body, to represent what it could be like if they would mirror me.


One of my private students, a woman who has suffered with chronic depression for decades, said to me today that she felt too awful to do class and instead, invited me to sit and talk. Which we did for an hour. Each time she discussed her impatience with the medical system, with the tests and inconclusive results and the fact that her heart is, one day, simply going to stop, I tried to add in an element that might uplift her. I said, you know that acupuncture, in addition to Western medical treatment for heart disease, has been shown to increase blood flow? You know that directed breathing, as we do in yoga, actually alleviates stress and makes you feel more in control?


She nods, she knows these things because I have told her before, but deep down, she just doesn’t care. She is sick of being 80 and sick; she is annoyed with healthcare providers who send her to other healthcare providers because they are not “specialists” in her realm. It’s just a dance of insensitivity, to see her shoved from one doctor to another. As she says, “I want no extraordinary measures.”


What is the mirror, then? Is it some place to see what you are thinking you might be , or is it really the opposite image of what you might like to be?


Common Ground--Sharing With Other Creative Aging Pros

Photo by Peter Whitehouse

All over the country, a raft of organizations dedicated to helping the Baby Boomers age well are tackling specifics on finances, aging in place, healthcare management, elder abuse, and more. My role in this set of businesses (and they are businesses) has to do with lifelong learning and creative aging. It has been clinically  tested and proven that remaining engaged in the arts—or beginning a new artistic career in later years of life—is not only enormously pleasurable, but can stave off depression, social isolation, and even dementia.

I joined the National Council on Creative Aging (NCCA) in Washington DC a year ago, and last week, I participated in and presented at its second annual conference. There is something to be said for sitting in a theater with 250 people who do what you do. Yes, it’s preaching to the converted, but on the other hand, it is a forum to share concerns, innovations, and challenges and also to develop new partnerships. 

Our founding father, Gene D. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D, was a renowned geriatric psychiatrist whose investigations showed that people involved with the arts as they age
•    Live longer
•    Require fewer doctor and hospital visits
•    Require fewer medications and lower dosages
•    Sustain fewer falls
•    Enjoy better general physical and emotional health

One of the big pushes at the conference this year was for teaching artists to partner with researchers in projects that would ideally prove their worth to funders. Only by measuring and re-measuring our results can we show how useful we are!

We were invited for a breakfast with Senator Claire McGaskill, chairman of the Senate Committee on Aging, to share highlights of our regional programs. There will be a White House Conference on Aging this July (we have these every 10 years whether we need them or not!) and we wanted McGaskill to present President Obama and the team with our successes, which might serve as models for future national development. 

In Miami, there is a new approach to dementia care, with the blooming of a village for residents where there are no locked gates. In Indiana, public parks are hosting elder art-making and poetry-reading. In Pennsylvania, the libraries are teaming with on-and offline elder arts programs. And in Utah, EngAGE is working on art and dance offerings for seniors throughout the state. Will the US government really help us out? It will probably lag behind anything we do ourselves with private funding.

Photo courtesy of KairosAlive!

Maria Genne’s KairosAlive! is a thriving enterprise, working with researchers and non-profits to spread joy around. Her Minnesota-based team covers the waterfront on bringing dance and storytelling to elders and intergenerational groups—and her opening night dance hall at the conference provided a lot more than fun. We danced to a live jazz trio, we learned new steps and ways to either partner-, circle- or free-form dance. But then Maria asked those who had grown up in the city to take the mic and talk about their experiences in dance halls of the 1950s and 60s. People just poured forth stories (“I told my mother I was on the bowling team since she wouldn't let me go dancing,” “I met my husband who was jumping up and down in his chair to the music,”) that clearly linked dance to the best moments of their lives.

NCCA_2015. Photo by Peter Whitehouse

My own workshop, teaching a group to sing and dance and then divide into 2 sections for a round (in only 15 minutes!), gave me the freedom to explore what sparks the desire to perform in people who have no previous performance background. My new initiative, working with medical professionals and social workers to deliver an infusion of breathing, creativity and fun into a therapeutic environment for elders and those with movement restrictions, was definitely reinforced at this meeting. 

Those of us at the conference who do this work daily see that the road ahead is long and frustrating and ill-paid. We are having so much fun, and see such good results, we sometimes forget that we're in business. We have to budget our skills, our enthusiasm and our sometimes boundless energy and make sure we are reimbursed fairly for what we do.  Physical therapy is a medically sanctioned practice, and it's well paid. Teaching artists offer physical, emotional, social, and spiritual therapy... and with our advocacy, perhaps we can begin to claim a place at the provider table. 

NCCA_2015. Photo by Peter Whitehouse

What A Chair Can Do




Who would have thought a chair could dance? Actually, some of our great current choreographers, like Mark Morris and Roni Koresh, use chairs to sit on, stand on or somersault across. They use them as props for dancers to drape themselves on or over. They use them as percussion instruments with dancers flapping their seats up and down or beating the whole chair on the floor to the rhythm of the music.

But chairs are also invaluable in a dance class for people who have difficulty standing, walking, leaping and running. This includes the elderly, the wheelchair-bound, and individuals with Parkinson’s disease. I owe my use of the practice to my training with Dance for PD®. Some 15 years ago, Mark Morris and David Leventhal (one of his premier dancers) got together with the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group to create a dance class for people with movement disorders. The class was not intended as physical therapy, but rather a vibrant, fun experience for people with certain physical restrictions to use their bodies and move in adaptive ways. The chair was a natural starting point and has been a standard in all these classes ever since. 

In my ANYONE CAN DANCE classes, I begin every session with dancers seated in a circle in straight-back chairs without arms.  I sit in the center and change the angle of my chair frequently, so that dancers can see the front and back of the choreography as they move.

Ideally we use steel-case chairs, with enough weight to support a heavy person without making them feel the thing is going to tip over when they lean forward or to the side. A person in a wheelchair can flop the foot-rests down if he/she is able to manipulate feet and ankles.  Here are a just few examples of the ways I use the chairs in my dance classes:

Put your back against the air, not against the chair

Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 11.07.27 AM.png

This is my mantra to students to get them to sit forward with their thoracic spine unsupported by the chair back. The more they can move to the very front of the seat and perch on it rather than sit, the better chance they have of swiveling and lunging from the sides of the chair. Their arms also have greater range of motion if they hang straight down and don’t touch the front legs of the chair.


Divide and Conquer the Movement

I want my dancers to feel comfortable and settled before they start to move. I want them to be able to find their center of gravity and not worry about losing balance or figuring out how to shift weight from side to side. The chair is a great equalizer, because it gives everyone a head start on grace and style. Imagine, for example, the lift and twist of a Flamenco dancer as he curls his wrists and fingers overhead and starts to do some intricate heelwork. 

By placing them in a chair and teaching first the arm movements, then the heel taps, and finally putting them together, I get my students to concentrate more on their attitude and flare than on whether they can manage the coordination of upper and lower body. If they choose not to do any heelwork, fine! The configurations and architecture of the body vis a vis the chair is so interesting and so adaptable.


How a Chair Can Assist with Fear of Falling

Many of my dancers are terrified to get on the floor because they’re certain they could never get back up. (One woman told me her daughter has made her swear never to get into a bathtub for the same reason.) I don’t even suggest doing this until a class is well established, and my students really trust me. It is scary, particularly for older, heavier dancers, to think about a fall.  I have to convince them that the chair is their friend—as is the floor.

I ask my students to perch at the front of the chair and put one foot behind the other, toes curled under. I have them test the strength of their arms as they push themselves out and off the seat and onto their knee. The first few times we do this I tell them just to lift off the chair but not put their knee down. If they never actually get to the floor they are still working on arm strength. (It’s helpful to have yoga or exercise mats next to each chair as cushioning for the knees.)

Photos of Steve Weintraub by Judith Sachs

Photos of Steve Weintraub by Judith Sachs

For those who are able to get down on one knee, I ask them to stay there as long as they want and at last, come onto both knees. Students with knee replacements can come onto a foot and then sit on one hip. I then have them pivot around to face the chair. Both hands go around the sides of the seat cushion so they can anchor themselves as they put one foot flat on the floor and push up, rear end in the air. Now they can pivot back around to take their seat.


Chair dancers are amazed at their flexibility and grace

A few of my dancers come to class with some body awareness left over from a childhood spent at a ballet barre or in front of a mirror at modern or tap class. But most are newbies to dance, and have been discouraged by the gyrations they see on TV shows like Dance Mom or So You Think You Can Dance. So there is nothing as satisfying as watching them finish a rousing chorus of the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” in a chair, reliving their own Motown era and moving with one another just they way they used to on the dance floor as teenagers. 

Recently, a couple of my dancers participated in a photography project called How Philly Moves, where they danced while photographer JJ Tiziou shot dozens of pictures. Of all the 125 dancers in the project, they were the only 2 in chairs. 

Photo by JJ Tiziou, How Philly Moves 2014

Photo by JJ Tiziou, How Philly Moves 2014

The photographs of them show their pleasure in moving as they are framed by the light. The shots also capture the blur of their motion—just like the young hiphop and tap kids, just like the wild pole dancers and the sexy Latin couple. The chairs have given them the opportunity to jump and jive as only they can. 

[This article is concurrently published in TAJournal. Available at:



A New Hip, A New Dance


I have a new hip. My second prosthesis.

For a dancer, mobility is everything, and even age doesn’t really put a damper on someone who never pirouetted on pointe and never lifted and carried a partner across a stage. My dancing has always been of the mild variety, experimental only in its storytelling and in its adaptation for unconventional performers (i.e. those in wheelchairs or walkers.)

When I watch my 85-year-old students dance, I see not the limitations of their bodies but just the newness of steps and weight shifts and rhythms. They use their canes, not airborne like Fred Astaire, but like a third leg. I think that if these women had danced all their lives, they would be a lot more secure on their feet, and better able to remember choreography. They would have whatever problems arthritis and medication and eyesight present, but nothing that detrimental. Their movement now is more like that of fledgling birds, feeling the ground for the first time, finding their space.




But back to my hip. I remember vividly back 7 years ago when my husband had to push me around a museum in a wheelchair. That was a whole month before my right total hip replacement and I had no idea what to expect afterwards. I thought, it can’t get worse than this. The pain, the waking up at night, the lack of surety that my leg would hold me up when I stepped out. I was terrified that I might end up in a wheelchair for life, but I was damned if I was going go this way. A fake hip had to be better! And it was.

This time, I didn’t wait that long. I taught my last class 4 days before surgery and although I was walking with a cane, I could still dance with the bum left hip. What was harder was standing on a street corner (I leaned on my cane) or walking more than 5 blocks on the hard pavement. 

But I was still scared. I am 7 years older; hospitals are now terrifying places because of all the infections that run rampant; and the body is fluky. I was looking forward to physical therapy with the amazing Ed, who made my last recovery possible, but I was well aware from my yoga practice that I was not supposed to look ahead. The present moment is where it’s at. And from here, the view was not as nice.

My doc told me that this time, the procedure would be faster and better, the prosthesis is smaller and more flexible, and because pain management is partly done locally (an anesthetic placed into the wound site before the incision is sewn up), the ingested drugs are not as potent. I was astounded to be up and about 3 hours after the procedure, walking stairs and getting into a fake car in the PT room. I was discharged 28 hours after my surgery.
This has to be Star Trek medicine. Fortunately, I was able to get subs for all my dance classes; I took off a month; I rescheduled a photo shoot of my dancers into October, and we did it just a few days ago--it was swell!

My surgeon was right. This time I literally skipped 4 weeks after surgery. I was able to tell my classes, “I just had my hip replaced—what’s your excuse?” I think (I hope) they are working harder to catch up.

Healing isn’t all in the muscles. It’s in the mind, too.

Liz Lerman Heals My Wars

I saw this picture a long time ago. The Rockettes, as seen from a different perspective on the female body and the aging process. I had no idea who the dancers were—the only thing I knew was that I loved the person who had thought to put them together.

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It was, of course, Liz Lerman, the anchor at the center of this group. The choreographer who dared to match old and young, fat and skinny, professional and amateur. She knew what dance had been and what it might be in future. She asked questions about the nature of movement, and how it relates to everything in life.


I was privileged to meet her last week at the National Conference on Creative Aging, where I had come to present a poster on performance and older dancers. Her new piece (masterpiece), “Healing Wars,” had just opened at Arena Stage in Washington, and she was conducting a workshop the following morning with a variety of the advisors who had helped her throughout the years she’d worked to mount this show. The dance-theater piece is a commentary on war, but it is also a paean to those who given sustenance and comfort to the wounded and dead. It has in it the representation of a soldier-woman who dressed as a man to fight alongside her brothers in the Civil War; a military surgeon who worked in Iraq; Clara Barton, who “discovered” over 22,000 missing soldiers after the Civil War and corresponded with their survivors; an actual Iraq vet who has only one leg but dances nonetheless.


Watching Liz Lerman talk is a lot like feeling your way through new choreography when you are first learning it. She sits onstage with 4 men and passes the hat as they explain their contributions to her work. But she is looking at and sensing the audience the whole time. She stops to ask, “What did that piece of information do for you just now? How did it change you?” This is part of the process she uses with her dancers (and probably why it takes so long to create a new work.


The  director of a Civil War museum talked about how regiments were created out of families, so that when a line went “over the hill,” entire generations were wiped out in a period of minutes. “What are you thinking right now?” Liz Lerman asked the audience when they heard this. One woman who had seen Healing Wars the night before, raised her hand and said, “An empty place at the table.” Liz beamed at her. “Exactly. It’s about what’s missing and how everyone is wounded by it.”


Over the hour of the workshop, I found myself having a dialogue with myself and sometimes with her and the people onstage about what it means to dance about pain with people who are in pain. I explained that I, too, worked with unconventional dancers, and although I had been aware of their restrictions, I had never seen our work together as parallel to what happens in war. The unexpected; the terrible; the emotional; the shredding of old skin and then, the patching up.

At the end I came up to her and she opened her arms to hug me. “Who are you?” she asked, “You are a kindred spirit.” I told her that we had mutual friends; I told her I had been using her picture for decades. She smiled asked me to keep in touch.

My dream is that we will write back and forth for years, and finally, when I am very old, she will need me in a show of hers. And I will go running, hobbling, waltzing – however I can get there.

Up in the Air Hip-Hop

There is a deadening sameness to air travel that sets my teeth on edge. It's not the shoe removal or the pouring out of your water or even the constant lack of space in overhead bins when you are in the last boarding group (somehow, no matter how far in advance we book, we are last to our seats.) No, what bugs me most is the education component of the flight, where necessary safety info is dealt out with a lack of imagination that is stupefying. The steward shoves a mask over his face and mimes clipping a seatbelt. The screen shows a cartoon animation of people sliding off a ramp into ...where? Surely not the ocean?

So I gotta hand it to Virgin America for their dazzling music video by director Jon M. Chu and choreographers Jamal Sims and Christopher Scott, with a team led by singer/songwriter/dancer Todrick Hall. (I know this because you can download a peppy behind the scenes piece from the seat back monitor.) It's got a dancing nun and hip-hop kids, as well as a quintet of Devo-guys in shades doing their robot moves as they inflate their life jackets.

The film takes place on a sound stage that makes no attempt to mimic the confines of an airplane. Instead, the dancers are in chairs that approximate airline rows, but with space in between to allow for maximum movement. One girl in glasses, who turns out to be a delinquent smoker, uses her enormously flexible body to draw one leg up overhead in an arabesque and drape the other around her neck. There's a Rockette-like sequence with seamed stockings and stilettos, as well as a little girl who raps solo twirling her mask, but then hands it off to an adult who puts it in place on her face. The stewards make use of the aisle to come down with hip-rolls and come back up in yoga-chatturanga position, jumping backwards on just their toes and fingertips. (There may be some CGI here, but it's tasteful!).


Space is assumed to be restricted,. No one hurtles over the back of a chair, for example, although these dancers easily could, because to hint at the possibility could be dangerous.The choreography in the chairs, however, indicates that even when clipped in one place for 6 hours, you're going to have a wonderful time. 

The ethnically diverse passengers and crew are clearly committed to teaching us lunks on board what we need to know ("for the .000001 percent of you who have never used a seatbelt, pay attention now!") and beg you in hip-hop rhyme not to hesitate to ask questions if confused. But the video is so much sheer fun, there's no way to stop watching. Granted, this was my first viewing, but if I could have pressed "Play" again, I would have.

The solution to education isn't always make-em-laugh, but when it comes to digesting essential information that we've been given in less than effective forms for decades, this refreshing option is just brilliant. I will fly Virgin again! #VXsafetydance.

Tapping Toward the Truth

I never learned to tap. I was one of those little kids who thought that ballet was beautiful and tap was just a lot of noise. 

As I got more interested in adapting dance forms for students who might be in chairs, however, I saw that tap dancing was the perfect medium. You are basically having a conversation with your feet, and you can do that seated or standing. Also, tap uses every part of your foot and makes you responsible for keeping a beat, even if it's a cross-rhythm to the music.

When I had the opportunity to take a 3-hour tap workshop with Kat Richter (co-founder of The Lady Hoofers of Philadelphia), I thought twice, then once again, and signed up. You didn't need tap shoes, so I figured it couldn't be too advanced. And by now, I know how to gauge when I'm getting exhausted or need to modify steps or doing them half as slowly.

Forty-one people showed up on a rainy afternoon at the Koresh Dance Studio. Many had the right shoes; I brought tango shoes to get the sounds out since they have wooden heels. I scrambled without shame to the front of the room for a good place where I could see the teacher. I always do this, even if I know absolutely nothing about the class I'm about to take--at least I have the closest observation spot! 

We started very slowly with toe and heel taps; then went on to shuffles and coordination of tapping a heel and stomping the other foot. We did sequences straight onto the mirror, then had to pivot a quarter turn each time to make a circle. We went across the floor in groups of 5; we made an improv circle and "passed taps" around to practice rhythmic patterns (something I could easily adapt for my own students!).

One of the gifts of having studied lots of dance as a child is that my body picks up what others put down--I have very little trouble grasping and repeating sequences of movement. And when they get really fast, I just do them half time! As a dance teacher with students who don't have this facility, I found it really impressive to look around at the people in the room, some of whom were obviously not facile with steps or rhythm, and see how they managed. There were very few who didn't keep up, and you could hear (because if you mess up with tap, you hear the mistakes) that most were right in sync with the teacher. 

Not, however, with the music. The interesting thing about tap dancing is that it often runs as a counterpoint to whatever music is playing. We might do a sequence to "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy," and then repeat the exact same steps to Pharrell's "Happy." You have to keep your own rhythm in your head while the accompaniment puts in whatever beats it's got, plus slows down or speeds up when the musicians choose. So you have to keep your taps in your head, and not get distracted by anything else.

Toward the end of the class, we learned the Shim Sham. This dance dates back to the 1920s and is often regarded as tap's national anthem, according to Wikipedia. Our teacher told us that the Shim Sham would enable us to go to any tap event, anywhere in the world, prepared to join right in. 

The dance isn't particularly hard, but once learned, it is performed fast, and each time we did it, she added some extras for those intermediate or advanced students in class. The sound of all those feet! (When she wanted quiet in the room, she'd say, "Hold your feet, please!") Everyone also looked happy... there is something joyful about making noise!

I have to say, we didn't take many breaks. Luckily there was one bench in the room, and often, when she was teaching, I would go collapse on it. I swallowed some ibuprofen in the middle of class, and when I got home, I iced everything I could think of. Still, the next day, it was nearly impossible to get out of bed. I wrote down the sequences to the best of my ability because my body wasn't about to perform them.

A few weeks later, I attended a workshop-demonstration of a jazz group accompanied by some terrific break dancers. The teacher was inspiring, and also 20 years older than his dancers, so I emailed him that night to ask if he gave classes. I told him I couldn't spin on my head, but I would like to give the standing stuff a try. He wrote back that I wouldn't have to spin on my head, but my head would be spinning with all I'd learn. A very hip-hop philosophy, I'd say. I guess I'm crazy, but I just may try it.

Birth Of An Elder Dance Teacher

ALT/space 12(2)
Malke Rosenfeld, J. E. Johnson, Jeff Redman, Annie Harrison Elliott, Victoria Row-Traster, Anna Plemons, Judith Sachs 
Teaching Artist Journal

Volume 12, Issue 2 pp. 97-112 | DOI: 10.1080/15411796.2014.878139

A New Start | Birth of an Elder Dance Teacher

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 Parkinson's, 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 fourteen 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.

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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 recast 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 nondancers are really becoming dancers! I have students in their eighties and nineties who remember tap and ballet class from their youth, so I'm not really starting from scratch.

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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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Treading the Light Fantastic: A Devadasi Weekend

It is one thing to say that 60 is the new 40, but it is quite another to say that 66 is the new 15.

Yet this past weekend, I was thrown back into my teen years at dance camp when I went to a professional development training at the Mark Morris Dance Group in Brooklyn. As a Dance for Parkinsons teacher, I have ongoing classes every week, but I admit that I don’t take dance class much myself. I feel that yoga, Pilates, and the gym’s elliptical machines are my teachers right now.

But Saturday, I had ballet, tap, and hula. On Sunday, I had modern, jazz, and an Israeli dance form called “Gaga.” These were given to us 37 vaguely in-shape professionals as a way of immersing ourselves not only in the traditions of dance, but also putting us in the mind of a new student who not only has Parkinsons but also has never taken a dance class—or at least not for decades.

At 15, knowing that I was going to be an actor, I wanted to learn movement from the ground up. My parents indulged this craving by sending me to Beaupre, an astounding camp for girls in the Berkshires right near Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow and the Berkshire Theater Festival. We were taken each week to dress rehearsals at the feet of the greatest musicians, dancers, and actors of the time—and very often, these performers would come over to Beaupre and teach a master class. It was in one of these magical hours, in a barn practicing Bharata Natyam (a Southern Indian dance technique), that a tabla player from India looked at me (blond, plump and Jewish, wearing a sari) and said, “SHE is the devadasi.” The translation was a temple dancer from an elite cult who were similar to Japanese geisha, women who performed but were also spiritual. They were held in high esteem in their society. Not prostitutes (although they did bestow sexual favors), but dancing goddesses on earth. Something to live up to!


I am still proud of being a devadasi, and this weekend, dancing my heart out, my knees and hips crying for mercy, I reached for my potential. The devadasis were dedicated to the service of a deity or a temple for a lifetime, so they had to keep going, even as they aged. And one of the best things is that a devadasi was believed to be immune from widowhood and was called akhanda saubhagyavati ("woman never separated from good fortune"). I thank my lucky stars and take a little ibuprofen.

Dancing in the Dark


I was nervous about creating a dance class for people with Alzheimers because I couldn’t teach them steps. I couldn’t expect them to learn a sequence; I couldn’t do anything I usually do when I teach. When I walked into the beautiful facility, I felt totally unprepared. I had read that props 


came in handy, so I had with me scarves, balls, maracas, tambourines, pinwheels, and a large supply of soap bubbles.

Dementia comes in many flavors—some people in the room are bored, some laughing, some hostile. One tiny woman in a walker with witchy white hair refuses to join the circle of chairs. “Come sit over here,” I invite her. “They don’t want me in their circle,” she responds, standing her ground. “That’s fine,” I agree (I have read that you should never say no but rather, deflect the situation), ‘You can sit here,” and I indicate a huge armchair with its back to the group. “Just listen to the music.”

She stands her ground. Then another resident comes over to her. “Edith!” she coos, “come sit by me,” and the woman allows her to lead her into the circle.

Some residents walk in; some are transported by wheelchair or walker by aides. I shake everyone’s hand and call them by name (I asked for name badges before I came), and tell them how happy I am to meet them. “What are we doing here?” a woman asks me. “We’re going to dance,” I tell her. “And sing.”

The circle fills up. Now there are 20 in the circle, many bandaged and bruised because people with dementia fall a lot. There are about 8 wheelchairs, some to accommodate movement problems, but some (I think) because it’s easier to transport people around rather than insist that they follow you. Several people try to get out of their wheelchairs during class and the aides rush in, not wanting any more accidents.

I walk the circle, telling everyone that this is a time to enjoy themselves. I open my arms wide and ask them what my gesture looks like. One woman says it seems like I’m holding a big beach ball. (She’s right!) “Yes, it could be a beach ball!” I say, “but it’s a hug.” I am borrowing this opening from one of the experts I consulted, and I’m afraid it sounds fake… but I continue. “I’m just feeling like giving everyone a hug right now.”

A few people smile faintly.

We start with a song I assume everyone knows. I put on Gene Autry singing, “You Are My Sunshine,” which was a suggestion given to me by another geriatric teaching artist. Lyrics that are easy to mime to. First I sing along with Gene, repeating the same stanza and the same movements even when he sings different words during different stanzas. The song is useful because it has such evocative words: “sunshine,” “you,” “make me happy,” “Skies are gray,” “how much I love you.”

I have been told that my job is to engage. The last dance teacher was fired because she just danced – and expected everyone to get up and dance with her. But just because you are moving doesn’t mean the crowd moves with you. All the choreography I do can be done in a chair or standing, so that’s no problem—the real difficulty is making eye contact with everyone in the circle. By the end of the song, at least half are making gestures like the circle of the sun and the hugging of “how much I love you.”

There are also those who sit stolidly, hardly moving, staring at me or deliberately away from me, like Edith. Each time I approach her—with a tambourine or a scarf or a pinwheel, she firmly rejects it. She and the woman who brought her in are like the cool girls, gossiping together through class, making remarks like, “This is silly. This is ridiculous.” Luckily, no one else seems to be listening to them and eventually, they get up and leave.

But I have some real successes. I put on “Lara’s Waltz” from Dr. Zhivago and seem them respond. I start to tell a story of a romantic ballroom on a dark night, everyone wearing ballgowns and tuxedos. I get up from my seat and sway, waltzing to the music. Now lots of people are swaying, so I dance up to them in turn and say, “Roy, will you waltz with me?” taking his hand,  or “Beautiful waltz, Ruth,” taking hers. She beams and says, “YOU are beautiful.” Suddenly the job is easier.

Until the next piece I try, where I ask people to sing along to a simple melody and alternately lift and lower their arms. Now there are some people asleep, others chatting to themselves or others, and a shift change where aides walk through the room on their way to pick up clients for the next activity. The clock says 2:57 and I am drenched with sweat. I stop trying so hard and ask them to breathe and just enjoy the day.

It is over. When I text my dancer friend to tell her it was the hardest thing in the world, she asks, “How many more of these do you have to do?”

We’re all just dancing in the dark here.

My students always train me, and I am just starting this course. It’s not the hardest thing. The hardest thing is having dementia. Bar none. Research, prevention, awareness, and more of the same is needed urgently as we all age. And fingers crossed and double crossed that we and our loved one are spared.

One Step At A Time Is Good Walking: Chinese Proverb

When toddlers pull themselves up to stand and take off for the first time, they rely on the impetus of movement, balance, a natural rhythm that carries the body to the right and then the left, shifting weight as it propels itself forward.

When adults try to walk after having one foot shut up in a cast like Rapunzel in her tower, they think they remember the momentum of movement. But the brain foils their efforts. One toe down, next the arch, next the heel and start to shift and place the other down and flat foot and…. It’s so confusing. The liberated foot is tingling with nerves that have been asleep for 6 weeks. The tiny muscles have been incarcerated and have no recollection of forming the interior angles that used to be second nature. There seems to be no padding on the bottom of the foot, as though the cast had rubbed it all off. Now think: Where does the foot fall when you put it down? When do you pick it up? How will you ever figure this out? You are like the centipede who, when asked which of his feet he initiated the process with, was unable to begin.

But you'll get it eventually. What matters is the ecstasy of walking again! Of being bipedal and knowing that you can get from your house to the corner with a measured number of steps. No crutches in your armpits; no unidirectional scooter to lift and rearrange over the cracks in the sidewalk. This is what it means to be homo erectus again!

I have always loved walking. It is a good solitary pursuit and it’s wonderful with a friend or lover. It is good to let off steam and equally good for meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh said, “People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle… is to walk on earth. Everyday we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize…”


When I Dance...


When I dance, I cannot see myself.

Think about any other artistic endeavor—a writer can read the words he has created; a visual artist stares at her work; a musician can hear the notes she plays.

But in dance, we are blind. There is a sense of accomplishing a phrase or using the music effectively as we chase a rhythm or settle into a cadence. But other than photography or video playback, we really are in the dark as to how we look and how we progress over time when we rehearse.

So I was delighted (and scared) when a still photographer told me his expertise was in catching the moment’s pause between movements in a dance or in sports. He showed me a shot he had taken of a rugby game and explained how offense is easy to shoot – a player kicking a ball shows his face and the emotion involved; but defense is hard because the heads are down and the attention is directed at the ball on the ground. His shot of 4 boys surrounding the ball was crystal clear, each head slightly tilted, the faces straining with effort.

He could shoot me dancing, he said.

I turned on my speaker and iPhone and showed him the choreography. I am seated in a chair and do 3 phrases over and over with slight variation each time. After he watched it once, he said, sure, go ahead, and I heard the whir of the camera repeatedly as I went through the song.

At the end he told me to stand behind him as he clicked through the shots – much like a a flip-book, there I was stretching a leg, throwing arms overhead, or passionately following the beat. It all was captured. And I could finally see myself dancing.

Not too bad!