When Louise Haskin was a little girl, she dreamed of tutus and ballet slippers, but her family was too poor to pay for dance lessons. So little Louise regularly escorted a friend to the neighborhood studio, then waited so she could watch the class rehearse.

"An aunt of mine who could afford to pay for lessons finally sent me to a funny little modern school where kids rolled around in gauze outfits," Haskin, a retired District kindergarten teacher, said, grimacing at the memory.

"I always wanted to dance."

When she was in her twenties, Haskin took the kind of dance lessons she wanted and performed for about 10 years. But for the next half century her slippers would hang in the closet.

The only dancing Charlie Rother did was before he went into "semiretirement," when he was a church pastor and did folk dances and square dances with his young parishioners. He never fancied himself a dancer, though when he walked down the street he would always catch himself studying the movement of passers-by.

"I did . . . very little social dancing," Rother said. "Certainly nothing like what we're doing now."

What Haskin, 80, and Rother, 67, are doing now is dancing, performing choreographed routines and doing improvisations as members of a group called Dancers of the Third Age. The company, made up of 15 men and women ages 60 to 90, performs in nursing homes and schools and at arts festivals around the world.

During the past two years, Haskin and Rother have danced in Stockholm, the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., and in New York City for the Statue of Liberty celebration. The group is known for such trademark pieces as a spoof on the classic "Swan Lake" and for choreography that blends the movement of young dancers with that of older dancers in a way that makes the time line evaporate and the ages indistinct.

"We learn from the young ones and they learn from us," Haskin said. "All of us {older dancers} don't hear as well as we used to, so it's comforting to know that after the director gives us directions, we can watch a young one do the steps. They are very conscious we are seniors, but we are never treated as old."

She said she regrets those years without dance in her life, mostly because "after 50 my muscles loosened," she said, smiling beneath her perfectly coiffed white hair.

She met Liz Lerman, the founder of Dancers of the Third Age, when the director came to give lessons at the Waverly House, a Bethesda apartment building for elderly and handicapped people and the place Haskin calls home.

"It is her belief that everyone should dance," Haskin, a widow with no children, said of her teacher.

"We even get people in wheelchairs to do something with their hands. Liz came here once a week and I enjoyed dancing very much. I told her about my dance experience and she invited me to join the group."

That was five years ago, and since then Haskin has grown to love even the routines that resemble those done by the children she remembered who dressed in gauze and rolled on the floor.

"I didn't think I would like {the company dances}," she said. "But I went to see them performing in a school and immediately I knew I wanted to join. It's meant a lot to me to see the little kindergarten children again."

"The first difference I felt after I started dancing was a physical difference," said Rother, who joined the company more than four years ago.

"I have arthritis and I had high blood pressure. Dancing helped both."

He was working with a group called Youth Enjoying Seniors in the old Lansburgh Cultural Center when he discovered Dancers of the Third Age.

His office was across from Lerman's studio and company, The Dance Exchange, and Rother said, "I got acquainted by reading about them and watching them; then Liz invited me to join."

He already had started what he describes as his "semiretirement, where I practice but don't preach."

He once had been associate pastor and minister of education at Chevy Chase Methodist Church, and for years worked as a chaplain to students, including serving as chaplain at American University.

"I wasn't a dancer but I've always enjoyed watching people move," Rother said.

Haskin and Rother attend two-hour rehearsals once a week, and sometimes research for a number means many more hours.

To prepare for one routine, the troupe spent four hours in a video arcade.

"We do a lot of expressive dancing, a lot of improvisation," said Rother, who is divorced and has four grown children. "I caught on quickly. It took me longer to catch on to more formal dancing."

"I've given up a lot of things seniors do," said Haskin, who is still active at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, which she has attended for 52 years.

"When day trips for seniors come up it seems I have to go dance, but this has fulfilled something in me," she said. "I thought I was all through dancing.

"When we dance at schools, usually someone asks the children if they notice anything about this group of dancers and some kid will yell, 'Yeah, they're old!' " Haskin said with a laugh.

"But dancing in the schools gives the children the feeling that old people aren't just sitting in wheelchairs."

"There's something spiritual about being able to express yourself in movement," Rother said.

"The connection between the mind and the body is brought into focus through dancing. There's a kind of healing that happens between the audience and performers. It's hard to describe . . . .

"But I think it was at Wolf Trap when Thelma, our oldest dancer -- she's 90 -- well, neither of us was feeling good. After the performance, though, I said, 'Thelma, how ya feeling?' and she said, 'Fine.' I told her I was feeling fine, too. Dancing does that to you."