Dance takes lead in medical, social connections
If it takes two to tango in the doctor-patient dynamic, a little fox trot and rumba can smooth relations, too.
That was the premise of this week's social at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill, where aspiring physicians and physical therapists waltzed their way into greater understanding of a generation of folks they are likely to one day treat.
The free program was sponsored by Yes, You Can Dance!, an Upper St. Clair-based nonprofit that brings ballroom dancing to the elderly and to people with autism and other special needs.
Dance partners are typically volunteers. On Sunday, they were students and professors from the University of Pittsburgh medical school, who had much to gain from the social, too.
“A lot of students come to medical school without much experience with older people. This is a great way for us to interact in a nonclinical setting with an age group we're likely to see in clinic,” says Lolita Nidadavolu, a Ph.D. and third-year medical student who is considering specializing in gerontology. She helped organize the student-senior mixer, which also was sponsored by the JCC's AgeWell Independent Adult Services Department.
“We're here to learn,” Nidadavolu says. “The dance format is something out of the ordinary, but it's much better than ‘chalk talk.'”
“By being themselves, the seniors are helping the students,” AgeWell director Sybil Lieberman says. “It's a wonderful opportunity to bond in a nonclinical way.”
The afternoon began with a lesson by Chris Roth of Steel City Ballroom in Mt. Lebanon, who covered the box step, timing, rhythm and turns, as well as social graces associated with the dances of a bygone era.
“Take your partner's hand as you lead them to the dance floor. Ask them their name,” urged Roth. “Smile!”
That struck a chord with Joe Finkelpearl, 81, of Squirrel Hill, who recalls how popular ballroom dances were when he was young. “It used to be where you met your girlfriend. Then rock 'n' roll came along,” he says. “The Frug and the Fish didn't interest me. Ballroom dancing became a lost art.”
Saul Kaufman, 95, of Oakland, also was quite a dancer in his youth and proved he could still cut a rug as he led Amy Trotnick of Squirrel Hill around the floor to Frank Sinatra's “The Way You Look Tonight.”
Although young enough to be his great-granddaughter, Trotnick, a physical-therapy student, had to concentrate on steps Kaufman performed from memory.
“I like his unique moves,” Trotnick says. “He's super-energetic … a great partner.”
“It was terrific! Great exercise!” says Kaufman, who misses the social aspect of dance. “I'd love to do it more.”
Tony Delitto, professor and chairman of the department of physical therapy at Pitt's School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, agrees ballroom dancing is an ideal way for seniors to stay active and strong.
He and his wife, Ronna Delitto, who also is a physical therapist, joined the board of Yes, You Can Dance!, because they are ballroom enthusiasts. They helped host Sunday's event.
“Ballroom dance is wonderful exercise for older people,” says Tony Delitto, 59, of Mt. Lebanon. “It's also a good way to exercise the brain, because when you ballroom dance, you have to be engaged. You have to work with a partner, whether you're leading or following. It's very cognitive.”
Dance also provides a socially acceptable way to touch, which sometimes gets lost as we age, he says.
Alvin Fineman, 92, agrees.
“Where else can you have cheek-to-cheek contact like that?” he says with a twinkle in his eye. He arrived on a walker, but soon set it aside to move to the music with physical-therapy professor Deb Josbeno of Cranberry.
“I don't ever get to do this,” says Fineman, who resides in an assisted-living facility in Squirrel Hill. “It brings back so many memories!”
Nancy O'Brien, 68, of Regent Square was drawn to Sunday's social because health issues prevent her spouse from dancing these days. “As a young couple, we'd go out dancing every Saturday night,” O'Brien says. “I exercise three or four times a week, but there's nothing like dance to stay healthy and active.”
And while she praises the young students for “taking on us old ladies,” the admiration is mutual, according to Babak Zaker, a second-year medical student from Bloomfield.
“We're learning a lot from these ‘old ladies,'” he says, tongue in cheek.
Having grown up dancing with his grandmother, Zaker feels at ease with people of a certain age. “They know the art of conversation,” he says. “Dancing and chatting with them can be very pleasant.”
Taku Xu, a first-year medical student, came because he wanted to learn to dance from an expert generation. “I figured this would be a safe environment for learning,” says Xu, who, at the end of the day, pronounced ballroom steps more difficult than they looked. “It was definitely harder than I thought it would be. But (the seniors) guided me when I got off-beat.”
The dance wrapped up with a conga line, as students and seniors snaked around the gym, hands-on-shoulders, leaving even Roth, the instructor, flushed with delight.
“It's a good lesson for us all about staying active,” he sats, “and about having the right attitude.”
Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.