Ballet classes at Shawnee senior center help residents' posture and mood: 'It makes you happy'
Vanessa Woods, a former professional ballet dancer, suffered an injury that ended her career. So she formed a company, Vitality in Motion, that brings movement classes to retirement communities, while also providing work for dancers when they're not performing.
Dot Burner spent her younger years dancing, taking modern dance classes in college and swaying the evenings away with her late husband.
At 93, Burner still loves to dance. She takes part in bi-weekly ballet classes, hosted by Vitality In Motion.
“It’s very relaxing,” said Burner, a Shawnee Hills community member who has been taking Vitality in Motion classes for more than a year. “My posture is better than it was when I started with this class. ... "It does not hurt. It makes you happy. It is relaxing, and the music is good help.”
Founded in 2012 by Vanessa Woods, Vitality in Motion specializes in adaptive dance and adaptive yoga specifically designed for seniors. Woods began Vitality in Motion by teaching classes at senior living and retirement communities in St. Louis but has since expanded her business to the Kansas City metro.
As a former professional ballerina, Woods was originally brought to St. Louis from New York City in 2010 to fill in for an injured swan performing Swan Lake with the St. Louis Ballet.
“I started becoming more ingrained in the dance company scene in St. Louis,” Woods recalled. “Over the years, I was starting to teach my young students, and I wanted to find a way to really make a difference for a wider audience," Woods said. "I was collaborating with my mom, who is a certified occupational therapist, in how we could try to get older adults to benefit from dancing.”
Vitality in Motion’s inclusive classes can be done standing or seated, and they aim to improve balance, gait, mobility, strength, posture and coordination, Woods explained.
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“We always hear about how this improves posture and awareness of posture,” Woods noted. “We also think about how it improves our balance and our fall prevention because we know those are two really important things for older adults. So even though we’re (sometimes) dancing from a chair, we’re really targeting muscles that will help them to strengthen their legs and their core and their glutes ...They’ve developed skills in our classes that will help them outside of their day of class.”
A 2020 studyposted in the medical journal, JAMA Network, researched the association of dance-based, mind-motor activities with falls and physical function among healthy adults 65 and older. The study of 29 randomized clinical trials found that dance-based, mind-motor activities were associated with a statistically significant reduction (37 percent) in fall risk and a statistically significant reduced rate (31 percent) of falls.
Another Shawnee Hills community member and Vitality in Motion class regular, Mary Morrissey, 77, said she started going to the classes with the hope of becoming more limber and graceful.
“(I feel) wonderful,” Morrissey said. “Maybe a little tired, but I feel really good. … I had issues with my arm and back and everything, so I think it’s helped me a lot.”
Along with the physical benefits of dancing, studies have reported mental and emotional benefits. A 2018 paperpublished in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that mind-body exercises — especially tai chi and dance mind-body exercise — are beneficial for improving global cognition, cognitive flexibility, working memory, verbal fluency and learning in cognitively intact or impaired older adults.
The company the class gathers also boosts social well-being, Morrissey said.
“No one’s perfect,” she said. “It’s just fun to be with each other and do something together.”
Discipline of a dancer
Life as a professional dancer is an all-consuming career, Woods said.
“It is your everything,” Woods noted. “You start training to be a professional dancer at a very young age to be competitive, and so it’s hard to see a life outside of dance.”
When Woods started Vitality in Motion, she was still dancing professionally. But an injury ultimately led her to end her career as a dancer and pursue her business idea full time.
Pivoting from ballet to business came with challenges, she admitted, noting that pitching Vitality in Motion to senior living communities was a challenge she had to overcome early on.
“Being a ballet dancer, your job is to not talk and just to listen to what other people tell you to do — truly, that’s your job,” Woods said. “So as a business owner, I really had to start thinking outside the box and figure out what are the skills that I need to develop in order to make this a viable business.”
In other ways, Woods’ background as a dancer uniquely prepared her for entrepreneurship. Just as she once had to think fast on her feet to remember complicated choreography, Woods is quick to solve problems when it comes to business.
“The drive it takes to pursue professional-level dance is really intense,” Woods said. “Now, that drive is so ingrained in me that it’s how I approach being a business owner (and) how I approach my life overall. It’s hard for me to take no as an answer, and when I see a problem, I quickly look for ways to pivot.”
A dancer’s discipline, paired with passion, can lead to an entrepreneur success story.
“I’ve learned that dancers can make great entrepreneurs because we are very motivated and goal-orientated when pursuing something we’re passionate about,” Woods said. “Dancers don’t do well without there being a passionate flame from within. The trick is owning a business you really do care about. I’m grateful to have found a way to stay connected to my roots as a dancer while helping people live a healthier life.”
Employing local performers
One of Woods’ goals with Vitality in Motion is to help provide job opportunities for local dancers, she said. During her professional dance career, Woods and her colleagues often had to work a second or third job to support themselves.
“Vitality In Motion helps support dancers by providing teaching opportunities that fall during ‘off peak’ hours where it might otherwise be difficult to find work that doesn’t conflict with their rehearsal or studio jobs,” Woods explained. “Our classes run year-round helping provide meaningful and stable work for dancers, even during dancers’ contract layoffs.”
Teaching older adults allows dancers to work on their communication and perceptual skills, as one may have to quickly pivot from what they had planned based on their group’s abilities. One criterion for all Vitality in Motion instructors is they must have the compassion to work with seniors, Woods noted.
Beret Holaday, a Kansas City-based dancer with Störling Dance Theater, has been working as a Vitality in Motion instructor since spring 2022.
“(I do) my rehearsing in the morning, and then I’m able to go and teach these classes,” Holaday said. “It’s also a really nice way to cool down a bit. … As the instructor, I think using those muscles and doing the exercises with them also benefits myself as a performer.”
Professional dancing is not feasible as a life-long career, Holaday acknowledged, and her time working with Vitality in Motion has shown her other career opportunities.
“I have thought, after doing this, that maybe I could work as an activities director in a senior living community,” Holaday said. “Or, you know, maybe I’d like to be a counselor.”
Everyone can dance, Woods said, which is why her ultimate goal is to expand Vitality in Motion nationwide.
“The idea (is) that we have Vitality in Motion offered in almost every major city, so that all of the senior living facilities that are really trying to help our older adults have a better life (are) able to offer them dance,” Woods said. “And then we are able to support local artists by offering them opportunities to work and teach adaptive dance programs.”