AURORA | Even at 80 years old, Sandy Diskin still loves to dance.
“All my life,” Diskin, a former professor at Purdue University, said when asked how long she’s been dancing.
But it was a mere turn of the foot that led to the latest chapter in the Michigan native’s decades-long passion for creative movement.
“It started with her kind of doing some of these moves, like squats, and toe raises and lifting her arms, and then we jumped into looking through her social history again,” said Jenni Dill, life engagement director at the Chelsea Place memory care facility on East Quincy Avenue. “And then we saw that ‘Oh my gosh, you are a dancer, you’ve always been a dancer.’”
And it was those subtle, yet deeply ingrained maneuvers that led to the development of the newest fitness program at the Aurora care facility: Barre class.
For the past two months, a group of about eight women, all of whom have some form of age-related memory impairment, have been raising their heels and lifting their arms in the therapeutic, dance-based fitness class, which blends exercise with traditional ballet.
“The barre class has kind of been this genius way to get the group to be able to stand and exercise,” Dill said.
On a recent Thursday morning iteration of the new regimen, 90-year-old San Francisco native Ida Gassoway raised her heels for about 30 seconds, her hand firmly planted on a nearby hand-rail which acted as the ballet barre for the class. In the background, tunes from the “Classical Goes Pop Rock” Pandora station featured lilting strings and light piano arrangements that disguised the hits of Taio Cruz and Lady Gaga.
“How many of these we gotta do?” Gassoway asked with more than a twinge of exasperation.
“You’ve probably done enough,” said Craig Dauer, a certified occupational therapy assistant with Legacy Healthcare Services, an in-house therapy firm that runs a slew of programs for Chelsea Place residents.
Gassoway simultaneously rolled her eyes and smiled before plopping back down in her chair and declaring, “Boy, I’m tired.”
On top of the new barre class, Chelsea Place hosts a slew of quirky social events for its residents, ranging from canvas and cocktails — with so-called “mocktails” in place of alcoholic beverages — and bowling and beers (again, non-alcoholic suds substituted for the real stuff), according to Kelly Campbell, head of rehabilitation at the facility.
“I try to incorporate things that interest me, but that I know would be beneficial for them, kind of bridging that gap with that multi-generational wellness and exercise,” Campbell said. “We did (barre) as kind of a test run last month to kind of check the pulse and see if anyone was going to come, and then it’s slowly kind of grown and morphed into … what we have now.”
Dill, who’s worked at Chelsea Place for about 18 months, said the benefits of the barre class — especially for Diskin — extend beyond just a 20-minute session on Thursday mornings.
“I see a huge difference in Sandy, and part of that is the physical exercise, of course … but part of it is the light in her eyes,” Dill said. “This doesn’t just happen at 10:30 (a.m.), this is Sandy dying her hair blonde on Monday and then getting it curled this morning and then picking out the perfect headband … it’s all of these things, and for her, it’s just so great for her mood.”
Although her father prohibited her from studying dance in college, Diskin went on to perform with dance troupes in New York City throughout her young adulthood. She even met her husband during a production of “Annie Get Your Gun” — he was acting while she was dancing in the show.
“It’s fun,” Diskin said of the new class. “I have fun.”