The Department of Dance in York University’s Faculty of Fine Arts is spearheading an innovative health initiative that sends students into the community to lead weekly dance activity classes for older adults at partner institutions in the Greater Toronto Area.

The program, supported by the Government of Ontario’s Healthy Communities Fund, focuses on the positive and preventative effects that dance can have for seniors. Drawing on the specialized training the student instructors bring to the project, injury prevention and health promotion are at the core of the program. It features carefully designed movement exercises that build strength, encourage flexibility and full range of motion, proper alignment and coordination, and cardiovascular conditioning.

“The benefits of dance and music for physical and mental health cannot be overestimated,” says Dance Professor Mary Jane Warner, the project manager. “Blending fitness and recreation through dance with the opportunity for creative expression is powerful motivation. Fitness strategies like this can help seniors stay active, in their homes and out of hospital beds.”

York’s Dance Department launched the project last fall with one-hour weekly dance classes held in the community. Over the course of eight to ten weeks, more than 190 seniors taking part at 10 facilities across the Metro Toronto and beyond. Three additional locations and five more classes were recently added to accommodate the growing demand from enthusiastic participants.

Feedback from the seniors and student-teachers, as well as the institutions hosting the sessions, is overwhelmingly positive.

“It’s incredibly satisfying when you hear how much these classes mean to the participants. You really feel like you’re making a difference in people’s lives,” says project coordinator and research associate April Nakaima, a choreographer and former research coordinator at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.

York University dance student Candace Calarco, one of the instructors in the Dance Activity Classes for Older Adults program

“One woman, a diabetic, was congratulated by her doctor for the drop in her blood sugar; she credited the class for this good outcome. Another participant said she found the dance class more beneficial in combating her depression than other programs. Several others credited the class with helping them lose inches from their waistlines. Getting responses like this after just eight weeks has been both astounding and deeply gratifying.”

The participants are incredibly diverse, and so the project delivery must be too, Nakaima says. “One of the most fascinating aspects is accommodating such a wide range of fitness, mobility, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. Some classes are done with people mostly seated. A couple of groups need translators. We even take music requests from the participants.”

Sixteen student teachers from York’s Dance Department are taking part in the program, earning course credit for their third-year pedagogy class. With a range of teaching experience under their belts and a targeted orientation program, they bring a solid foundation to their training to lead the dance activity classes.

The pedagogy classes prepare them to teach in dance studio settings, recreation and community centres, and the public school system. The course covers teaching participants of all ages and abilities, with a strong emphasis on creative movement as a form appropriate for everyone, including the elderly. There are also courses in kinesiology, conditioning, somatics and injury prevention that prepare the students to work safely with participants.

Some of the students in the program are planning to teach dance in community settings or within the school system after graduation. Others bring a particular interest in dance therapy or rehabilitation, looking to serve clients with special needs such as the elderly or people recovering from illness or injury.

York University student-teacher Rhea Bowman

“The experience has been amazing,” says fourth-year dance major Rhea Bowman, who is teaching her second group of predominately Spanish-speaking participants at the Black Creek Community Health Centre. ““I feel very passionate about fitness for older adults after seeing how beneficial this dance class is for them. We dance to Spanish, soca and calypso music, and some of the ladies have taught me more intricate Spanish dance steps. They’re teaching me some Spanish words too!

The student teachers come together each week to share their experiences and strategies on solving the challenges they encounter in the course of their teaching. Input is also invited from the participating seniors and partner institutions. This ongoing feedback loop deepens the experience for everyone involved.

“The student teachers from York University’s Dance Department are professional, knowledgeable instructors who address the physical exercise needs of our clients while taking their medical conditions into consideration,” says Rukhsana Naheed Cheema, the seniors coordinator at the Elspeth Heyworth satellite location in Vaughan’s Blue Willow Activity Centre. “The pleasant personalities of these skilled instructors add to the seniors’ love for the program. It has not only improved their health, but their mood and spirits as well. They hope it can go on forever!”

View a slide show (PDF) on Dance Activity for Older Adults