I’ve had a taste of old age recently, having both hips replaced in the last few months. I’ve had to rely on others for the simplest needs, wasn’t able to drive, and was limited in how far or how fast I could hobble around. Just picking something up off the floor became an epic battle of willpower. It certainly helped me to understand the struggles our seniors face each day.
My Mom, now 88, uses a walker to get around, and has chosen to no longer drive. She must rely on my wife and me for her needs, and I often take her out for shopping or sight-seeing. I witness first-hand the adjustments and strategies she has to come up with to make sure she can get around various stores, watching out for stairs or narrow aisles, worrying if handicapped parking will be available, mentally measuring walking distances against how much stamina she thinks she’ll be able to muster. Younger people have no clue as to the complications and challenges life presents when one begins to lose mobility.
My mom’s friend Evelyn Robison has taught dance classes at the Sparr Heights Community Center to seniors and those with disabilities until recently, and knows well the emotional dynamics of physical limitations. You see, Evelyn is 85, and didn’t even start dancing herself until her mid-60s.
When Evelyn reached retirement, she found herself overweight and out of shape. Although she had a conservative religious upbringing that frowned on dancing, she also was never one to shy from a challenge. She went out on a limb and, among other exercise strategies, took a dance class, and found she loved it. She loved the rhythm, and found she could express her feelings through dance. But in classes populated with lithe young adults, she was a grey-haired oddity with half the flexibility and stamina of her classmates.
Despite that, Evelyn had found a calling in her new found love for dance and began to take teacher training. The “final” for these future dance teachers was to design a curriculum and teach the other teacher trainees. It was here that Evelyn had a stroke of genius. She knew that in the average dance class setting the elderly and disabled would feel intimidated, and that these younger teachers would have no tools to help them. So in the course she put together, each of these youngsters would choose a “disability”. She brought in several wheelchairs, walkers and canes, ankle and wrist weights, blindfolds and earplugs, and had each student pick one or more of these impediments to use while taking her class. They would go through her dance class sitting in a wheelchair, or leaning on crutches. Some students tied one arm down, or strapped their legs together. For those students with glasses, Evelyn smeared one or both lenses with Vaseline before running them through their dance routines.
The results were remarkable. These agile young bodies that could do anything suddenly had to adapt and adjust. With no legs, their torsos and arms had to make up the difference in their dance moves. With earplugs they could barely hear the music and only hear half the instruction. With limited sight they felt bound to the safety of the walls. Frustration mounted for the students, and even some tears began to flow. Many suddenly felt a deep connection to parents and grandparents. They’d be taking their new found empathy to their own future dance classes.
Evelyn’s idea was so successful that they made it a permanent part of the teacher training course, and there’s a new generation of dance teachers out there that understand and can work with physical limitations.
Evelyn’s own dance classes at Sparr Heights were designed with physical limitations in mind. She showed me photos of her dance students in the class, many very elderly, some sitting while dancing. They hadn’t given up on life and were still using what they had left to dance with. Her philosophy: Don’t dread aging, embrace it and express it. Evelyn was teaching more than dance – she was teaching how to celebrate life with an aging body.
Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the
Crescenta Valley. Reach him at