By Tiffany Merlo Phelps

When Dottie Cunningham arrives at Ponte Vedra Gardens, an Alzheimer’s Special Care Center, she comes prepared to share her love of tap dance with residents who wish to learn. That includes bringing slip-on tap shoes that allow everyone to fully experience the sound and movement of tap dancing. 

Cunningham, who runs Tip Tap Shape, got the idea to teach tap dancing at senior facilities after reading an article from the American Medical Association about how tap dance is one of the best things seniors can do to preserve memory and to prevent dementia. She has been dancing and teaching dance to children her entire life, so she decided to put the two ideas together. 

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“I love it. You just see them light up, interacting with each other and having a good time,” said Cunningham, adding that tap dancing promotes brain reconditioning by activating multiple cognitive functions such as perception, emotion, decision-making, memory, and motor skills. 

Cunningham said after warming up with stretches, she teaches basic tap moves, three to four steps at a time. The goal is to put all the steps together into one dance, usually one dance per four sessions. Some residents prefer to watch at first and just enjoy the music. Eventually, everyone eases into the routine, she said, some even recalling tap from their earlier years. 

Starling at Nocatee Director of Engagement and Zumba instructor Jana Alexander also finds that music and dance have a way of lifting spirits. Alexander teaches Zumba once a week to residents with a focus on fun, not the choreography. 

“The residents really love it because of the rhythm,” said Alexander, who has been a certified Zumba instructor for 12 years. “I always say to just do what you can. It is not about the steps. It is totally fine to just clap your hands and socialize.” 

Alexander said the facility will often have a themed Zumba event such as a Halloween Zumba class in which caregivers, grandchildren and staff members will participate just to “spice things up a bit.”

“It is really fun, and the residents enjoy the interaction,” said Alexander. 

Over at Vicar’s Landing, Yoga instructor Diane O’Donoghue teaches chair yoga to help improve posture, range of motion, relieve stress, improve mental clarity and function, improve foot health, increase lung capacity, and decrease back pain. O’Donoghue has been practicing yoga for 19 years and teaching for 18. 

“I want all of these things for my students,” said O’Donoghue, who has been teaching at Vicar’s for nine years. “My goal, for all my students, is for them to feel good about themselves, physically, mentally, and spiritually; and life. It is a blessing for me to teach at Vicar’s Landing. I learn so much from them too. My senior students have so many hidden secrets about life, love, joy, and happiness. They are full of wisdom and goodness.”

Brown Family YMCA Healthy Living Director Tina Allen has been teaching Active Older Adults (AOA) classes for 10 years and currently teaches AOA Fit and Aqua Fitness. Allen said that the AOA classes focus on strengthening muscles and increasing range of movement to help with daily life activities. The classes also provide an option for every fitness level, including being seated in a chair. Allen said she enjoys seeing how active and fit participants are well into their 90s. 

“They are so thankful for the classes and the social aspect of coming and participating with their friends. Also, hearing their stories and being a part of their lives is so rewarding. As an instructor, you know that you are really making a difference in their lives,” said Allen, who is also the Group Exercise and Healthy Aging Coordinator. 

Executive/Artistic Director Dawn Wolf at Ponte Vedra Ballet and Dance Company offers a free senior ballet class (ages 65 and older) to the community once a week. She has been teaching the class for 17 years. The art of ballet, she said, helps with balance, alignment, and strength as participants move through seated, barre and center work. Most importantly, modifications are made for the senior body, and the point is to simply have fun and enjoy the health benefits of ballet, especially regarding posture. 

“I want everyone to feel good and beautiful with movement. Everyone is capable of making beautiful movements,” said Wolf, adding that she is dedicated to keeping the class free and accessible to everyone. 

[Author’s note: For the free ballet class, register online at or call Ponte Vedra Ballet and Dance Company at (904) 859-2223 for more information. The classes, which run year-round, are held on Wednesdays from 3 p.m. – 4 p.m. Wolf said seniors may come consistently or just pop in at any time.]

Photo courtesy Tiffany Merlo Phelps 
Karen shows off her tap dance shoes during a class at Ponte Vedra Gardens.

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