Line dancing keeps seniors moving

Salinas Corps finds popularity in weekday group exercise through dance.

By Dennis Taylor–

It’s 10 a.m. on a Monday when the music begins:

Ooh wah, ooh wah cool, cool kitty

Tell us about the boy from New York City

Ooh wah, ooh wah c’mon kitty

Tell us about the boy from New York City

Two dozen seniors, mostly in their 70s and 80s, move toward the center of a cafeteria at The Salvation Army Corps Community Center in Salinas, Calif., bouncing rhythmically with the stylings of Manhattan Transfer, the group that took that song to the top of the pop charts in 1981.

They fall in line behind 54-year-old Michelle Tomasini—the youngest person in the room—who leads them in slow-moving a circle, a warm-up exercise for the hour ahead.

Tomasini started line dancing at The Salvation Army in 2009, years after becoming enamored with the country-western dance style that skyrocketed into a national rage with the film “Urban Cowboy.”

A year later, she took over as the volunteer instructor, teaching steps like “The Electric Slide,” “The Tush Push” and “Eye Candy” to anyone 55 or older who wanted to participate.

“It’s a beginners class, so we keep it simple, but they like the challenging dances, like the Tush Push,” Tomasini said. “You do the heels, then you do the hips, then you make a half-turn, a quarter-turn, and another half turn. That’s the hard part. Sometimes I’ll make a mistake and everybody will laugh. It’s OK in this class to make a mistake, and everybody does.”

Some dancers sink into trancelike concentration. Others grin ear-to-ear and sing along as they slap their heels and clap their hands. They step one direction, slide the other way, and maybe mix in a Charleston-style cross-step, if appropriate.

“Every dance we do is my favorite dance, but I like the Texas Waltz. It’s very slow, and graceful, and rhythmic,” said 73-year-old Mary Schapper. “We’ll do about 3,000-4,000 steps in an hour, which is great exercise—and really fun exercise.”

Schapper isn’t the only one who doesn’t appear to be feeling any pain, and nobody in the room looks intimidated or overwhelmed.

“The dances aren’t hard to learn because we just stick to basics,” said Frances Cherry, a six-year veteran of the class. “We don’t want any of the fancy stuff. We’re seniors. I’m an old lady! I don’t want to break anything or injure myself trying to be fancy. I just want to keep moving.”

The social element is a key attraction. Midway through each class, they take a 10-minute break to chat and snack. Once a month, there’s a potluck. And if anybody is still hungry afterward, The Salvation Army serves a healthy, free lunch at 11:30 a.m.

Occasionally, the line dancers from the Salinas Salvation Army even hit the road—adorned in black pants, white shirts, and Salvation Army stickers—to do their hoofing in front of churches, retirement communities and community centers. Exercise is their Fountain of Youth, they say.

The only man in the room, Johnny Lau, is also one of the most animated of the group, especially after the tempo increases with songs like “Barefootin’,” “Locomotion,” and “Take It Easy.” Lau, 80, is a basketball player and a rock-climbing instructor at the local YMCA.

“I like being the only man in the class. All of the women are very friendly to me,” said Lau, whose wife, Janie, participates too. “All of the other men chicken out, but I’m not afraid of women. I just do my thing and have fun.”

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