York University’s Department of Dance 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 (GTA).
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 Department of Dance Professor Mary Jane Warner (right), 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.”
According to the Ministry of Health & Long-Term Care, the number of seniors in Ontario is expected to double in the next 16 years. In 2009, 18 local hospitals reported that community services such as recreational and exercise classes, along with facilities for the elderly, are hugely insufficient to meet their referral and discharge needs.
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 10 weeks, more than 190 seniors at 10 facilities across the GTA took part. Three additional locations and five more classes were added last month to accommodate the growing demand from enthusiastic participants.
Current community partners include North York’s Bernard Betel Centre, Black Creek Community Health Centre, Downsview Services to Seniors, Elspeth Heyworth Centre for Women at two locations in North York and one in Woodbridge, North York Seniors Centre, Toronto Heliconian Club, St. Clair West Service for Seniors, three Unison Health and Community Services in North York, and Vaughan Community Health Centre. 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. “One woman, a diabetic, was congratulated by her doctor for the drop in her blood sugar; she credited the class for this good outcome. Several other women credited the class with helping them lose inches from their waistlines. Another participant says she found the dance class more beneficial in combating her depression than other programs. Getting responses like this after just eight weeks has been both astounding and deeply gratifying.”
Nakaima, a former research coordinator at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, serves as adviser and guest lecturer to the program. She brings extensive expertise and experience to the project, having previously developed a highly successful dance program for older adults living in government-assisted housing.
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.”
Rhea Bowman, one of 16 student teachers, leads seniors in a dance class
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 students are planning to teach dance in community settings or within the school system. 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.
‘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. “We dance to Spanish, soca and calypso music, and some of the ladies have taught me more intricate Spanish dance steps. They are teaching me Spanish words too!
“I feel very passionate about fitness for older adults after seeing how beneficial this dance class is for them,” says Bowman. “I would love to continue to do this work after the year is done.”
Bowman’s classmate, Candace Calarco, who is teaching at the Elspeth Heyworth Centre for Women located near York’s Keele campus, is equally enthusiastic. “So far, this placement has been a totally positive and exciting experience,” she says. “Working with seniors has really expanded my knowledge about movement and the human body, and how to teach a group with a wide range of physical abilities.”
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 community partners. This ongoing feedback loop strengthens 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.”
Plans are in the works to create a dedicated course to keep the program running in the future.