For most elderly people, dancing is something to look at - not to do.
But for dozens of golden agers at D.C.'s Roosevelt Hotel for Senior Citizens, 2101 16th St. NW, a weekly modern dance class taught by Liz Lerman, the director of The Dance Exchange, has brought excitement to their usually quiet way of life.
"Dancing has brought me back to life again, and I feel on top of the world," beamed Vee Hollenbeck, a petite 78-year-old with snow white hair, who is one of nine dancers in the Roosevelt's senior dance touring company.
Dance has given her both a mental and physical awakening, said Hollenbeck.
"I don't have any family in this area, so dance class has brought me many new friends but that's not all. I had severe arthritis and for years I couldn't walk up stairs, and my arms were so crippled that I couldn't put my hands behind my back.
"At first I didn't do much dancing, but little by little I found I could move more and more," she said proudly, waving her arms back and forth. "Then suddenly, one day, I found I could put my hand back and I was absolutely amazed."
Lerman's desire to use elderly dancers in a piece she choreographed sparked the idea of a senior citizen dance class.
"When I brought my idea to The Roosevelt a year and a half ago they thought I wanted to perform for the seniors," explained Lerman, who teaches all levels of dancers - from professionals to beginners - at the D.C.-based Dance Exchange. "I had to make it clear that I wanted to dance with the elderly, not for them.
"At first it meant knocking down some culturally defined stereotypes - people were afraid they'd they'd hurt themselves, or they felt dancing was undignified for someone their age, or they just plain thought they couldn't do it," explained Lerman, 28, who combines a broad base of modern dance, mime and ballet technique into a flexible movement form suited to her elderly pupils.
"I really feel that people are at their best when they're dancing, and when they get moving these folks are just incredible dancers," Lerman said.
When the class started the seniors danced for only 10 minutes before they tired. Today they can sustain an hour-long class.
Some attend the class in wheelchairs and some come on metal walkers but each is encouraged to do what he or she can, even if it's only raising a hand or lifting a foot.
Several months ago nine of the most active elderly dancers formed a touring company that travels to senior centers around the area demonstrating their dancing skills.
Recently the roosevelt dancers performed for a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 persons at the National Council on Aging's annual conference at the Capitol Hilton.
"I've always wanted to dance, but I was too stiff and stodgy before," nodded Elizabeth Pendleton, her grey eyes shining behind thick bifocals. "Liz makes moving fun, and dance has become one of the great pleasures of my life."
"Health-wise it's limbered me up," said Ada Welch. "And Liz is such a good teacher because she tells you to do what you can, and stop whenever you feel tired."
"Nothing is forced," added Olena Olkhovsky, whose improvised portrayal of a grizzly bear displayed considerable imagination and spirit. "But dancing is so beautiful and fun. It is very, very hard to keep still."
"Even the people in wheelchairs and on canes participate at the Roosevelt, even if it's just to move a finger or lift their feet," said Janie Shear, 74, who plays the spoons, a talent that won her first place on radio's Major Bowes Amateur Hour back in the '40s. "My body used to be stiff, but now I've taken to tap dancing in my kitchen, to the absolute delight of the lady below me."
Accompanying Lerman on her Thursday classes at The Roosevelt and in the current show are several other dancers in their twenties who confess that because the elderly are such an enthusiastic, responsive audience their legs seem to extend further and their jumps seem to go higher when they dance with their senior partners.
"Oh, there's certainly no generation gap here," said Harry Belanger, an athletic 84-year-old who does calisthentics every day and demonstrated several rapid push-ups for a group of admirers before the show. "This group of youngsters and oldsters feel just at home and we enjoy each other very much."
One of the most dramatic changes attributed to the dance class has come about in Lenore Mayo, 70, whose body had been severely twisted with scoliosis.
"I can move more now than I could when I was 19 years old," Mayo boasted, swaying her torso from side to side. "To me dance means I'm not 100 years old yet."
Lerman hopes to use the Roosevelt experience to bring together more young and old dancers, and she is planning to apply for grants from federal agencies such as the Administration on Aging and the National Institute of Mental Health.
"I feel that dance is a beautiful way to bring together diverse groups in a community," she reflected. "Older folks have a great deal of love to give, and after working with them I really think there's no limit to what's possible."