The group of elderly men and women moves hesitantly at first, gingerly raising their arms and shuffling their feet. Within minutes, as a mambo beat pulses through the room, they’re joyfully swaying their arms overhead and tapping their feet in rhythm. Some move to the center to shimmy to a jazz beat; others swoop across the floor with outstretched arms, smiling with delight.
It doesn’t matter to Naomi Goldberg Haas that these senior citizens aren’t executing perfect jazz steps. Seeing them light up as they move with confidence around the dance floor is one reason she founded Dances for a Variable Population. The nonprofit organization offers free and low-cost classes geared to older people.
“I see how happy people feel when they move,” she says. Haas also believes it’s important that older people are “visible in their own community and not marginalized.”
Haas has been a professional dancer since she was a teenager. She studied with the School of American Ballet before arriving at Barnard, and has danced with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. She founded the Los Angeles Modern Dance and Ballet company.
Dances for a Variable Population offers classes at senior centers and other locations around New York City. “The need was enormous,” Haas says. “People were crying out for a better level of mobility and strength.”
The classes are taught by dancers who range in age from their 20s to their 80s. Seniors learn basic dance steps as well as balance and good posture, and by the end of the course, they can choreograph their own dances. They often give free performances in parks and other locations.
Haas’ organization receives funding from New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs and several other sources. She has received numerous awards for her work, including the 2014 Presidents Award for the Performing Arts from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.
Haas is delighted by the transformation she witnesses when her students recapture the joy of moving. “They’re more at home with who they are,” she says. “They’re letting everyone know, ‘This is who I am.’”