Dancing seniors move their hips and make new friends at the Sandler Center in Virginia Beach

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Dancing with the Seniors

VIRGINIA BEACH — Local seniors who say they have a hard time finding spots to do the “Cha-Cha Slide” or the “Wobble” are learning new steps through the “Dancing with the Seniors” program at the Sandler Center.

The free program kicked off its fifth season Monday with 60 seniors under the leadership of BailaFuzion Dance Company owner and instructor Marquita Bianca.

Throughout the next four months, Bianca’s class will learn the basics of a variety of dance styles, including the waltz, swing, cha-cha, bachata, salsa, Bollywood, and African dance.

Following eight bi-weekly lessons, the students will put their new dance skills to the test with a “senior prom,” where participants will vote on a prom king and queen, Bianca said.

“The goal is for each student to proficiently learn the material and become familiar with the other students,” she said. “I try to make sure everyone comes out feeling successful. It keeps us edgy and on our toes to make sure we provide the highest level of education for them.”

Spots in the program are hard to come by. This year, Bianca received more than 200 applications, and even had to turn away a few last-minute inquiries at the door.

Those that did make it into the class were up on their feet in minutes learning the basics of line dancing.

According to Bianca, around 10 percent of students have prior dance experience, but all that is required from applicants is an able body and a commitment to attending each session.

Eileen Massie and Lauren Bands Sr. (center) participate in the Dancing with the Seniors program Monday. (Mariah Pohl)

Lauren Bands Sr., 82, one of the few participants versed in many of the ballroom styles, said he expected the program to be a good refresher course.

He was joined by his friend Eileen Massie, 77, who is new to dance.

“I’m a big beginner – me and all three of my feet,” she said. “But I like the fact that we get be active and see what we’re made of.”

Massie noted she has been interested in dance for some time, but has been unable to find a place to go dance casually in the city.

“I like the slow, smooth dances, but where do you go?” she said. “The dance clubs here are just wild.”

Massie is not the only one to have noticed a lack of variety when it comes to local dance venues.

Harold and Barbara Rooke (center) learn the Cha-Cha Slide Monday at the Sandler Center. (Mariah Pohl)

Barbara, 70, and Harold Rooke, 71, said they also signed up for the class because it’s one of the few places in Virginia Beach that accommodates dancing for seniors.

“There’s no place to go as an older person to dance in the evenings. We’ve gone to listen to music a couple times and people look at us like ‘what the hell are you doing here?'” Barbara said. “We like all kinds of music and thought this class would be more our speed since we are in our 70s.”

Ronald said he and his wife have enjoyed dance since they married 51 years ago, and are looking forward to learning new styles through the program.

“We started dancing in the 1950s to whatever the kids were listening to at that time,” he said. “If something interests us, we do it. It’s a good way to meet new people.”

Helping people get to know each other is a critical part of the class for Bianca, who begins many of her sessions by asking students to introduce themselves to the people around them.

“Mental health runs everything for your body. To be able to come in, meet new friends, and dance in fellowship is, I think, a huge controlling factor for that,” she said. “You see high-fiving and hugging and interactions with people who have never met before. That’s why it is important that the students make it to each class. Otherwise, they might miss meeting someone.”

Several students, like the Rookes, signed up together, but many others, like Barbara Pecil, came on their own, and look forward to making new friends with a similar interest in staying active.

“I don’t have a dance background, but I love to dance and I thought this looked like fun,” she said, noting that while she did not want to give her age, she’d seen a lot of presidents throughout her life. “So far, it has been a good workout.”

According to Bianca, watching her students become more active is one of the best parts of the program, and something she looks forward to each week.

“My favorite thing is being able to see 75-year-old ladies become 20 again through this program,” she said. “They get to come in, learn something, and be an artist or be silly with it. They get to experience something completely new.”

Pohl may be reached at mariah@localvoicemedia.com