Katarina Jakimier leading an assisted-living class (photo by Mary Jakimier, courtesy Mary Jakimier)

Meet the Dancer Who's Using Ballet to Help Senior Citizens

Aspiring ballerina Katarina Jakimier, a Dallas, TX, native, was just 12 when Dance Spirit first featured her, highlighting the innovative pointe shoe recycling program she created in her community. Now 16, Jakimier is still studying ballet intensively—this past fall she started training at the John Cranko Schule in Stuttgart, Germany—and is still on a mission to make the world a better place. Recently, she founded the Silver Swans Ballet Program, which allows senior citizens in retirement homes to experience the magic of ballet, and to reap all of its health benefits. Here, she tells us how the initiative came to be. —Courtney Bowers

Katarina Jakimier (photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy Mary Jakimier)

I created my Silver Swans Ballet Program as part of my work toward earning the Girl Scout Gold Award, which is the highest award given to Girl Scouts. I first got the idea in 2015, while I was studying at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, Russia. I heard about dance benefiting seniors with mental challenges, and I knew that I wanted to explore that idea when I returned home. Ballet seemed a wonderful way to help aging populations stay as physically and mentally healthy as possible, for as long as possible.

I planned to create a single simplified ballet routine for seniors at a retirement center. But I started talking to assisted-living staff and memory and health-care unit staff, and they said it'd be great if I could do a more elaborate program. Ultimately, I created three separate routines. The first routine was 30 minutes long and made for fully independent seniors who could stand. The second was also 30 minutes, but could be done seated, with the option to stand for part of the class. And the last was a fully seated, 20-minute class for residents in memory and health care units.

Katarina leading a standing class for independent seniors (photo by Mary Jakimier, courtesy Mary Jakimier)

I spent a lot of time choreographing each routine. I chose the music carefully, selecting well-known classical ballet pieces and familiar songs from musicals like The Sound of Music and The Little Mermaid that I thought would be both stimulating and soothing. I consulted with geriatric nursing specialists, seniors ministry at my church, adult dance teachers at my studio, and senior living community staff to get a sense of what would be most beneficial for residents. And I observed a yoga class for independent and assisted-living residents and a music therapy class for wheelchairbound dementia and health-care center residents to get a better feel for their challenges.

Because Gold Award projects are designed to be self-sustaining and to live beyond the involvement of the Girl Scout, I taught my routines to senior center staff members, so that they could keep the classes going. I specifically designed each one so that someone with no ballet experience would be comfortable teaching it. But I was also able to get the senior center staff complimentary ballet classes at my studio, Texas Ballet Theater in Dallas, so they could get more familiar with ballet. They all adapted so quickly—I was really impressed.

Speaking about her project at a senior center on International Women's Day (photo by Mary Jakimier, courtesy Mary Jakimier)

My project ended up reaching more than 700 senior citizens, and the feedback I've gotten has been so positive and heartwarming. A couple of women in their 80s told me how much stronger their knees felt after the class, and how much more confident they felt walking and moving around in general. In one of the centers, a few ladies were even advocating for a second class every week. It was amazing to see these seniors fall in love with the art I love so much

A version of this story appeared in the December 2017 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "The Gift of Ballet."

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