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The Aging Immigrants Bringing a World of Dance to New Jersey

A troupe grooves toward empathy—and health—as local demographics shift.

Pooja Makhijani

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Kathy Kircher, a country line dancer, sashayed between her dance troupe-mates to “All That Jazz,” from the 1975 musical Chicago. Kircher is an agile dancer, and she twirls her prop cane and tips her glittery hat with the skill of a veteran performer. Here, at Bridgewater Township Senior Center, a facility that serves this 50,000-strong New Jersey township in Somerset County, Kircher and more than a dozen other women dance together as the Bridgewater Roxies, a dance troupe made up of members ages 59 to 86.

The Roxies are led by Donna Langel, the senior services coordinator and choreographer. Langel, a tap and jazz dancer and fitness instructor, launched the Roxies in 2002 as an aerobics component of the Mayors Wellness Campaign, a state-wide community health initiative. The group participates in classes and rehearsals three days a week and performs at schools, hospitals, and senior centers throughout the area; today, they are preparing for a show in March at Green Knoll Center, a local rehabilitation and long-term care facility.

As she puts on a rendition of “Tell Me Ma,” an Irish children’s song, Langel explains that prior dance experience isn’t a prerequisite. Yet several Roxies were dancers in their youth: Patricia Benward and Lindsay Hyland tapped together at the New Jersey Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens; Winnie Seidel, for four years in the late 1950s, was a ballerina with the Royal Academy of Dance in London. Others, however, turned to dance as senior citizens as a means to age healthily.

According to the National Institute on Aging, exercise can improve strength, increase energy, improve balance, prevent or delay diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis, and reduce anxiety and depression. Furthermore, research has shown that aerobic dancing, specifically, has wide-ranging physical and psychological benefits. And dance, like other community arts, also provides participants with positive social supports, defeating loneliness and isolation and improving quality of life.

While Bridgewater Township does not have any numbers to prove that their programs have sustained public health benefits, Langel has years of “anec-data” to support her belief that such activities are beneficial to the health and wellness of the area’s oldest residents. “I see with my own eyes what’s happening to our senior population,” she says. “My girls are coy about their ages, but I’ve trained dancers as old as 96! And they are healthy and energetic and strong.” Additionally, Langel stresses that the group’s strong friendships have made aging more enjoyable for these women.

Many of the dancers concur. “We are a family; we are so close,” says Lily Cheng, who joined the Roxies a decade ago shortly after her husband passed away. “Dancing lessened my grief.”

“I didn’t want to sit at home and be lonely,” adds Mary Lou Dittmar. “I love the camaraderie here.”

Dance has also proved to be a way to integrate immigrant families into a community that has seen a significant influx over the past two decades. As of 2010, the municipality was nearly 18 percent Asian American—a 60 percent increase in just a decade. Nearly three-quarters of Asian Americans in the Garden State are foreign-born; most immigrants are from India, China, the Philippines, and Korea, and are drawn to the electronics, pharmaceutical, and medical care industries of central New Jersey.

The Bridgewater Roxies learn choreography from around the world. (Pooja Makhijani)

The population of the surrounding towns and the county also mirror this demographic change—as does the Roxies’ choreography. The Roxies have learned dandiya raas, a dance from the Western Indian state of Gujurat, and perform a routine to “Jai Ho,” a Bollywood-inspired number choreographed by Rupali Chakravarti, a troupe member who studied classical Indian dance professionally in her home country. Pushing toward diversity can be especially difficult for older residents, Langel says, who may be set in their ways. But since she began teaching seniors, attitudes have softened. “Their acceptance has changed,” she says.

The Township offers all its senior citizens a free transportation program to all activities, including rehearsals, at the senior center, as well as to grocery stores and doctor appointments. Langel find that the service is well-used by immigrant families, especially those in multi-generational households—common in Asian-American families—or those who have elder family members visiting from India or China who need transport.

The dancers take a break for a bit of stretching. They all agree that there are challenges to dancing as the body ages: Seidel says she has less flexibility and speed than she did as a young person; Dittmar often finds remembering choreography challenging (“senior brain,” she says). Yet these women are extremely dedicated to their art and rarely miss a practice. “Our aim is to keep senior citizens out of care facilities and in their homes,” says Langel. “It’s their love of dance and their love of performance that keeps them healthy. You put them on stage and they love it, and it keeps them fit.”

About the Author

  • Pooja Makhijani has written for The New York Times, The Village Voice, Time Out New York, The Washington Post, WSJ.com, The Rumpus, Serious Eats, Lucky Peach, BuzzFeed, Quartz, and other publications. She lives in Singapore.