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Engage the body

by Erin Quinn
January 13, 2011 01:23 PM | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Sondra Sperber demonstrates her chair dancing technique with the help of William Furey of New Paltz. Photo by Lauren Thomas.
Sondra Sperber demonstrates her chair dancing technique with the help of William Furey of New Paltz. Photo by Lauren Thomas.
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The latest dance craze sweeping through Europe has finally found its way to the Hudson Valley. Dance teacher Sondra Sperber has crafted a “Euro dance” class for seniors of all stripes and abilities from her sojourns around the world, particularly to Finland.

Sperber has designed an easy-to-learn style of dancing rooted in the folk traditions of Europe that can be enjoyed by inter-generational groups, single seniors, friends and even those who are wheel-chair bound or have limited physical abilities. She’s been well received at Woodland Pond, a senior-citizen continuum-of-care facility in New Paltz where she brings movement to those whose mobility is limited. Her classes were also popular with the Lifelong Institute of Learning (LIT). She will start weekly classes at the New Paltz Community Center beginning Monday, January 24 at 12:30 p.m.

With rings on her fingers, bells on her toes and multi-colored scarves, Sperber displays an exuberance for life and dance. People of all ages in Elderhostels, cruise ships and various parties have been inspired by her to dance, sing and laugh out loud through the expression of music and movement.

A dancer, artist and longtime teacher, Sperber first encountered this style of dancing while on a trip to Helsinki with her late husband, Martin Sperber, an oboist who taught for years at SUNY New Paltz’ music department. “Elderhostel trips are wonderful because they always include local people who help educate visitors on the history, politics, economics and culture of a specific country or place,” she says.

While in Helsinki, Sperber met Margaretta Grigorhoff, “this spirited little Finnish woman who performed these dances that were so fun and lively that I knew I had to bring them back to the States!”

She learned that Margaretta was a popular dance teacher for seniors in Finland. “The word ‘senior’ is a celebrated word in much of Europe, but Americans feel quite differently about it,” said Sperber. “In Helsinki, almost every day of the week there are at least eight places where you can find senior dancing going on. They embrace retirement at age 55 because they can then dance during the day.”

This approach to becoming a senior was right in line with Sperber’s spirit.

As fate would have it, after Sperber’s husband passed away she was invited by family to stay in Switzerland during her grieving period. She got in touch with Margaretta again. They met. That’s when Sperber began taking dance workshops throughout Europe and “danced morning, noon and night for days on end.”

While she has travelled the world, Sperber has returned to Finland seven times to continue to foster relationships, study senior dancing, and enjoy the culture. “There are active and less-active seniors all over the world doing incredible things,” she said, “and I think that engaging the body also helps to exercised the brain. Wherever I go and introduce this dance, it is well received and people are just smiling. I love to bring joy to people. They see that I’m a senior, and I’m active person and someone who embraces each day!”

Dressed in orange and pink scarves with a velvet sweat-suit outfit, and handmade earrings adorning her face, Sperber is a firecracker with fun, wit and experience. In her classes for wheel-chair-bound people, she has her students tapping their feet to the sounds of thunder, lifting their arms up and bringing down the rain, taking a “walk” through their bodies and minds outside the building they are in. They travel in their minds to a field where a rainbow is breaking through the clouds. They sweep their arms out in an arch to simulate the rainbow.

In her more active classes Sperber provides such well-known tunes like “As Time Goes By,” plus various polka and waltz classics as well as modern music and jazz. She encourages participants to move to the beat and switch partners often.

“That way, you don’t have to come with a partner!” she exclaimed. “At first they can be a bit hesitant. But after a while they enjoy switching and meeting one another, and you can hear them laugh during those first few awkward moments of dancing with a new partner …. When you change you grow, and when you move and dance you are more alive and happy.”

Because of the prevailing attitude of what she sees as younger is better in American culture, with billion-dollar industries selling products and services, and slicing people open to try and have them look younger, Sperber knew she had to change the name from senior dancing to Euro dancing.

“It can really be enjoyed from young children up to any age and ability,” she said, “and I adjust the classes, or parties accordingly. But movement is life. No matter what the age, once people try it, they almost always come back because it makes them feel so great.”++

To learn more about Sperber’s classes or to book her for a party or an event contact her at 256-5502 or at sperbersondra@yahoo.com.

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