In Motion: Movement Class for Adults Over 50
by Sarah Ramey
In Motion: Movement Class for Adults Over 50 was founded in 2015 by Sarah Ramey to create more opportunities for older adults to experience dance in Columbus, Ohio. The program began with support from an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, a national program of funding and mentorship for graduate students engaged in service projects to address the social determinants of health in their communities. In partnership with the Clintonville-Beechwold Community Resources Center, Ramey developed a free dance program that included twice-weekly dance classes and field trips to see local dance performances. These classes cultivate strength, flexibility, and creativity in older adults, and combat social isolation through dance class and outings, as well as the 30 minutes of snacks and social time that follow each class. In 2017, Chloe Napoletano joined In Motion as a teacher and key collaborator.
“Most people look at older adult classes as movement and exercise. In Motion is about connecting with your body through dance in a way that is meaningful and grounded and healing. It changes perceptions about who is a mover and maker of movement, and challenges perceived notions about community programs for older adults. This class is not about staving off aging; it’s about embracing the physical, cognitive and emotional abilities of older age in a way that is healthy and fully engaged”
— Ambre Emory-Maier, Director of Education, BalletMet
Teacher Chloe Napoletano leads students in a balance exercise. Photo by Sarah Ramey.
In January 2018, In Motion moved to BalletMet, a 40-year old ballet company and school located in downtown Columbus. The structure of the class remains the same: 1 hour of dance class followed by 30 minutes of snacks and conversation, with classes held twice a week. Since moving to BalletMet, the program has grown in size from an average of 6 students per class to 12-15 per class. One of the great benefits of being at BalletMet is being part of a community of dancers: when the participants come to class, they have the opportunity to peek into BalletMet’s rehearsals, observe the pre-professional students taking class, and even be joined in their classes by members of BalletMet’s second company, BalletMet 2. Participants have also had the opportunity to attend BalletMet and Academy performances at a free or reduced rate, and this exposure to a variety of dance styles has really expanded their view of dance and choreography. Out of this interest in choreography, many of the participants chose to participate in an optional intergenerational performance project that culminated in a performance at the Wexner Center for the Arts on a showcase of local dance groups. This represented a major step forward for the program, and opened up the possibility of the participants being able to share dances with the larger Columbus community. In addition to classes held at the downtown location, workshops and class series are held at local retirement communities to bring dance experiences to people who may not be able to travel to BalletMet.
The movement springs from a Western contemporary dance and improvisation tradition, with an emphasis on the development of individual artistry alongside group awareness. Class usually begin seated in chairs in a circle, with exercises to warm up the joints and major muscle groups. It then progresses to standing sequences that focus on alignment and shifting the weight through space and later, improvisational tasks to explore movement concepts. Class typically finishes with a piece of set choreography developed over a series of classes to challenge the body and the memory, or a choreographic activity in which participants learn skills to create their own short dance works.
A few principles guide these classes:
Each person is encouraged to stretch to his or her own limits and allow others to do the same.
Observation and reflection: especially when introducing a new concept, the teacher will ask questions of the students to elicit observations about their experiences or what they observed in others
The value of variation: participants are encouraged to make modifications to movements that are not comfortable on their bodies. Examples: choosing to stay seated in a chair instead of stand, choosing to use the elbows rather than the fingertips to reach
Exploring dance concepts deeply on a physical and intellectual level should spill over into our lives outside of class. Examples: improved balance or strength during daily physical tasks; ability to empathize with others
Chloe and participants at snack & social time after class. Photo by Sarah Ramey
Older adults face greater social isolation as they age, and on a deep level, the thought of anyone feeling alone and without a community of support breaks my heart. My passion is to help others find their place and purpose, and develop their gifts so they can serve their community. In Motion has provided a place for this kind of growth for our participants. Through my own experience as a dancer, I’ve found that the community that springs up in and around dance class is incredibly valuable, and I wanted older adults to have opportunities to experience the bonds you can form with others when you sweat alongside them in class and rehearsals and see dance together.
“I had a back condition when I first started taking In Motion classes that limited my mobility. Now, I have increased mobility, and my pain is lessened and sometimes goes away completely. I’ve also seen greater flexibility and better balance since starting these classes. We do things in class that really stretch your brain, like improvisation, and a hidden benefit of this class is the development of a community—it’s not just a class for us.”
— Charles Miles, age 70
One of my favorite activities we do is an improvisational structure in partners. One person is the leader, and one is the follower. The leader moves across the floor in whatever manner they would like, then the follower attempts to follow the leader exactly, without any delay, almost as if they share a brain temporarily with the leader. Then, the partners switch leader and follower roles. This quickly expands students’ movement vocabulary and introduces the idea that everyone has a unique way of moving that we can learn from and try on. Because the task of performing someone else’s movement exactly is nearly impossible, it also usually includes a lot of laughter and appreciation for how another person moves.
My time with multigenerational dance company Liz Lerman Dance Exchange from 2007-2013 provided a foundational education in creating dance experiences for people of all ages, backgrounds, and movement abilities. During my time with Dance Exchange, I had many opportunities to teach workshops and create choreography with people who had did not have formal dance training, or came to dance training much later in life. It helped me see virtuosity in the tiniest gestures, learn to dig deeper into detail, and hone my choreographic interests and voice. In 2013, I moved to Columbus to pursue my MFA in Dance at The Ohio State University, and my time in the program helped me to unpack my training as a community-based artist, refine my teaching skills, and develop new choreographic practices bridging community work and concert dance.
I’m not sure there is a way to phrase what I’m about to say without sounding flippant, but one of the biggest lessons this work has taught me is that older adults are not “cute.” Frequently, when I meet people and tell them about the program, the first reaction I get is something along the lines of how cute it is that these older adults are dancing. I understand the instinct to describe them in this way, but “cute” really doesn’t do justice to the rigor, discipline, and love with which these students approach dance classes. “Cute” also doesn’t account for the fact that in any given class, someone is having a bad day, someone else doesn’t really like the exercise you are introducing, and someone else is watching the clock. I don’t say that to disparage the students, but to point out that our group of older adults is made up of individuals with opinions and preferences, just as you would find in any group of people assembled around a common activity. When I look back on my own expectations of what community would look like in an older adult dance program, they were extremely superficial. Almost three years into In Motion, I see that building community that lasts requires a mix of grit and grace from every person involved. Being part of the In Motion community is one of the more difficult and beautiful things I’ve been a part of as an artist and a person, and I am grateful to grow alongside these older adult artists.
My students are risk-takers. When I think of what it takes to show up for a dance class for the first time at age 65, or 75, or 80, I marvel. I wonder if I will have the kind of courage it takes to try something completely new and unfamiliar when I am that age. These students have taught me so much about the value of being consistent, of showing up each week. I can’t count the number of times a student will reveal during our post-class social time that they are sick, or have a hurt shoulder, or didn’t sleep at all the night before, but they just really didn’t want to miss out on the class or catching up with the other participants. They are also incredibly generous with each other. Early on, I realized I didn’t have to worry about making a new student feel welcome; the participants were warm, friendly, and made the new participant feel completely at ease by the time class began. They are also true lovers of the arts: they have no interest in seeing art based on what’s “in” or trendy--they see everything and have really insightful observations about the work they see.
Teacher Chloe Napoletano leads a cool down. Photo by Sarah Ramey