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‘Music and Movement’ class stretched everyone

Teaching a class for Trinity Living Center’s “Art for Souls” program did not, at first, seem tailor-made for me. Truthfully, I have never considered my various exercise classes as therapeutic. Fun, yes, but therapeutic? Add creativity into the mix and I was really stepping out of my comfort zone. Plus, while I often have students with a variety of memory challenges, I have never designed a class aimed at that group.

But once I began imagining such a class and then put ideas on paper — well, actually a computer screen — some commonalities emerged. In teaching a variety of fitness classes from yoga to Zumba over several years, I’ve learned I am best suited to teaching older adults. After all, I am one. Also important, I always look forward to reaching a new group of people and challenging myself to respond to their needs and capabilities.

Finally, reading about how others had worked with this special group and talking with the center’s executive director Christina Joyce helped me come up with a plan. In nearly all my classes, we are moving to music, whether the class is tai chi, yoga, Aqua Zumba or chair stretch and tone. For the “Music and Movement” class, the challenge was bringing these very different exercise forms together into a cohesive whole and adapting them to class participants’ varied abilities.

One of the things I enjoy most about what I do is the opportunity to use my energy and passion to ignite a spark in people to express themselves and experience the joy of uniting their minds, bodies and spirits. Also, in any class I teach, I seek to draw on and expand my own skills and self-expression so that I grow as both a teacher and as a student of life. I love sharing that journey with my students.

So for six weeks, from mid-March to late April, I met with a group of eight individuals at Trinity Living Center. My goal was to give them the opportunity to use sound, rhythm and movement to open avenues of self-expression and experience the joy of creating something new, and free of correction.

In choosing a theme for the class, I tried to shape it to be both therapeutic and fun. “Celebration” set the tone for me in selecting music and props. I brought a dozen helium balloons to our first class because I wanted it to be like a party. I viewed the theme as a chance to celebrate lives well lived and the joy of sharing our gratitude for our lives in the context of both our past and present.

We began each class by introducing ourselves and giving a “one-word check-in” about how we were feeling that day. I envisioned this as a way to help participants build trust and sense of community, as well as help them feel good about themselves and each other.

Following the greeting, we performed warming-up movements. As participants became more comfortable, we began working on knowing where our body is in space and connecting body, mind and spirit through movement, rhythm and music.

Physical activity can link participants to their bodies, and music also helps to activate that link — especially music that is familiar, or that has a strong beat. To that end, we used a variety of rhythm instruments including bells, drums, tambourines, rhythm sticks, shaker eggs and maracas. In other classes we employed brightly colored, light scarves we could “dance” with.

Balloons also proved to be very successful in the class. They were particularly useful in helping participants interact with each other as they batted and kicked the balloons back and forth. The scarves were also inspirational as we both moved with them as dancing partners. In the students’ hands, the scarves became hats, parachutes and jump ropes. It was so much fun to watch participants bring their personalities to the rhythms and movements.

I drew on my training from other classes, using tai chi’s fluid arm movements and balance challenges; breathing techniques, warm-ups and stretches from yoga; and some very simple dance steps from Zumba. We used the same upbeat celebration music each week and we enjoyed singing along to those we knew, including “Young at Heart” and “Put on a Happy Face.” We also enjoyed singing to some lively gospel music like “Oh Happy Day” and “Down by the Riverside.”

At the end of each class we each had the chance to express something that we were grateful for that day. Every week I was amazed by the depth of this sharing. I also noted how much individuals changed between their “check-in” at the beginning to class and their gratitude sharing at the end of the class. I have always believed that music and movement both are freeing, but what a gift it was to actually witness this!

Gail Poulton is a fitness instructor who has training as a senior fitness specialist. She currently teaches classes at J.F. Hurley Family YMCA, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and Rufty-Holmes Senior Center. Contact her at GailPoulton@bellsouth.net

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