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Building Socialization Into Choreography

Facilitate interaction in your older-adult classes.

Creative choreography is both an art and a science. It can even act as a catalyst for social connections in older-adult classes. As participants age, developing new friendships
can be difficult. People want to connect to other people—and group exercise provides this connection. Choreography is a perfect vehicle for social growth as well as physical enhancement.

This article identifies specific interactive techniques that invite students to have fun and discover similarities. Socialization builds camaraderie, group loyalty, mentorship and a network of supportive exercise buddies. For many people, going
to exercise class and seeing “fitness friends” is the highlight of the day (Van Norman 1995).

Making Socialization Work

Have you ever said “Find a partner” while teaching a class? If so, chances are you were met with a few grumbles and maybe “I hate this stuff” or “I think
it’s time to leave.” If interaction scares participants away, something is amiss. Include socialization as part of your
lesson plan, not as an afterthought.

Establishing the right interactive
environment can take time. Asking participants to arbitrarily “pair up with someone” or to randomly “find a partner” produces anxiety for people who are shy or fear rejection. You may need to take a step back and spend some time building rapport. Although you want to perform cardiovascular exercise within an appropriate heart rate range, getting to that level from the stress of forced socialization is not what you want.

A Casual Warm-Up

Teaching style is an important consideration when building socialization into choreography. If participants need to watch you continuously, they won’t be able to socialize. Therefore, a casual instructional method works better than the traditional follow-the-leader style. Movements should be mentally undemanding and physically uncomplicated. Keep them simple and so common that people can do them without looking at you. The transitions between patterns should be relaxed; you can often let participants decide when to change movements and which foot will start. With this teaching style, the emphasis isn’t
on moving to the cadence—the beat
is there, but participants don’t have to move on it.

In practice, a casual approach really breaks the ice. Here is an example of a warm-up that uses this style:

Time: 10 to 12 minutes

Beats per minute (bpm): 110-120

Music: Instrumental music works best, because vocals do not interfere with verbal directions. Jazz, Broadway, pop or any music style is fine as long
as participants like it.

  • Select one or two steps that travel easily—for example, a simple walk or triple step.
  • Cue participants to walk in a big circle around the room. There will be a tendency to walk in a single line, but this is not necessary. Instruct slower walkers to stay on the outside of the circle, faster walkers on the inside. Tell fast walkers it is okay to pass other participants, but always to pass on the inside (this minimizes accidental run-ins). Keep the circle as big as possible to prevent dizziness.
  • Periodically switch directions. Slow down the pace and cue participants to march in place, facing the center of the circle. Then cue them to turn and face the other direction and begin walking. At this point, you may notice that some people are already socializing with others and not changing direction when everyone else does. Some individuals may walk to the pace of the music and others won’t. Give positive feedback for both.
  • Add easy variations to the walk. Switch between walking low with knees bent and walking high on the toes (alternate every 10 to 15 seconds or every eight or 16 counts). After a few sets of high/low walking, change the pattern back to regular walking. On every fourth step, have participants lift a knee up and clap. Next, try a low kick instead of a knee lift. Then pretend you are shooting a basketball on every eighth step. Follow that with a conga pattern, touching one foot out to the side on every fourth count, and so on.
  • Split the group into two smaller groups. Cue participants to separate as they continue walking around the room. Select a criterion that reveals
    a fact about the participants and form two groups. Say, as an example, “If you’re a native of this state, keep walking in the direction you are
    moving. If you were born in another state, come in toward the center
    and walk in the opposite direction.”
    You will now have two groups walking in circular patterns in opposite directions.
  • Invite participants to gently “high-five” each person they pass from the opposite circle. The high-five acts as
    a physical icebreaker. If someone is not doing the high-five, it may indicate that he or she doesn’t want to be touched. If this is the case, don’t push it. Simply end your casual teaching style and return to follow-the-leader instruction. If everyone is participating, you can feel safe in continuing the socialization.
  • Prepare the class to partner up. Establish another fun criterion for finding a partner, like “Find the person whose birthday is closest to yours” or “Choose a partner who
    was born at least 50 miles from your hometown.” Participants may discover they attended the same high school, have the same birthday, are from the same hometown or even live in the same apartment building but have been unaware of it.
  • After everyone has a partner, lead participants in varied walking patterns around the room—for example, from corner to corner or in “squiggly snake” formations. Finish the active warm-up with one round of “London Bridge,” which almost always elicits smiles.
  • End with one big circle, hands
    joined together. Have everyone walk toward the center for five counts,
    lift a knee for three counts (holding hands makes balancing on one leg feasible), then move back out in the same pattern. Since everyone has a partner, continue with more balance exercises or do basic partner-assisted stretching.

Cardio Choreography Design

An interactive and fun warm-up sets the tone for the rest of the class. Carry the social aspect into your low-impact cardio section with three distinct choreography routines:

32-count choreography fits seamlessly into 32-count music selections. The downside is that it restricts music choices. The number of 32-count music titles that will appeal to older adults is limited. Additionally, some adults are not aware of the relationship between 32 movement counts and 32 music counts. Therefore, always performing 32-count choreography is unnecessary, as it is not critically important to this population.

Structured choreography is designed around song arrangement. Although this method allows for a larger music selection, more preparation is needed
to plan your moves to the music.

Freestyle or spontaneous choreography allows participants to move to the beat of the music, yet there are random movement changes.

Being able to use all three methods allows for greater variety. The following low-impact routines detail these choreographic methods. Each one uses a
casual instructional approach in order to encourage interaction. Just as you would in a “traditional” class, finish these social sessions with an appropriate cool-down that safely brings the heart rate back down.

Low-Impact Routines

These routines feature music from AeroBeat Music and Videos’ “Senior Workout 2.”

32-count Choreography

Music: “Satin Doll” (127 bpm)

Primary movement: step-touch

Variations: step-touch double (twice on each side), step-touch 4 (four times on each side)

32-count combinations:

  • 16x single
  • 8x double
  • 8x single, 4x double
  • 4x single, 2x double; 2x
  • single, single, double; 4x
  • double, double, 4; 2x

Throughout the song, feel free to switch between any of the above variations. Casual-style tip: Allow participants to partner up, face to face, and select whichever combination they prefer while performing the moves holding hands.

Structured Choreography

Music: “Tito Puente Medley” (120 bpm)

Primary movement: cha-cha


  • forward cha-cha (step forward on right foot on count 1, step on left foot on count 2, cha-cha-cha in
    place on counts 3 and 4; repeat
    on other side)
  • corner cha-cha (step on right foot
    to left corner on count 1, step on
    left foot on count 2, cha-cha-cha
    in place on counts 3 and 4; repeat
    on other side)
  • crossover front cha-cha (step on right foot over left foot on count 1, step
    on left foot on count 2, cha-cha-cha in place on counts 3 and 4; repeat
    on other side)
  • step-behind cha-cha (step on right foot behind left foot on count 1, step on left foot on count 2, cha-cha-cha in place on counts 3 and 4; repeat
    on other side)
  • classic cha-cha (step forward on right foot on count 1, step on left foot
    on count 2, cha-cha-cha in place
    on counts 3 and 4; step back left
    on count 1, step on right in place
    on count 2, cha-cha-cha in place
    on counts 3 and 4; repeat)

Since this is a medley, the beginning of each song is a good time to start a new variation. The music dictates that you change moves, because the music is changing. Casual-style tip: Have participants face a partner and select whichever cha-cha variation they prefer while performing the moves holding one or both hands.

Freestyle Choreography

Music: “Roseland Days Medley” (146 bpm)

Primary movement: walking around the room

Freestyle choreography combined with casual teaching gives you the greatest flexibility for spontaneously changing steps and movement patterns. Here, the phrase “Just keep moving” is not a placatory remark. The following choreographic elements are always self-selected by the participant:

  • which side starts first (left or right)
  • whether or not to move arms simultaneously with feet
  • whether or not to sync with partner/group
  • whether or not to move on the beat of the music or move faster/slower than the beat
  • the number of repetitions

Most older adults like having these choices, especially the first four.

Variation: double-O pattern

Two lines come up the center of the room. After reaching the front, each line circles out toward the closest side wall and continues walking to the back of the room, forming two separate walking loops, or the double-O pattern. As each participant walks up the center of the room, he or she walks next to a person from the opposite loop. Once everyone understands the loops, add a specific cardiovascular move, such as
a knee lift. When participants reach the front, they stop the move and simply walk to the back of the room in the loop (i.e., the cardio move is done only while walking up the center). After a couple of loops, change moves. For instance, replace the knee lift with a low kick. Keep switching moves every two to three loops. Other variations for the double-O pattern include

  • diagonal grapevines to the front
  • step-touch
  • step-tap
  • heel-toe/triple step
  • face partner, hold hands, step side-
    to-side while moving forward
  • face away from partner, touch hands in back, step side-to-side while moving forward

Double-O patterns present a good opportunity to “empower” participants by asking different couples to make up the next move. Everyone then follows the move they selected. After a few loops, a different pair designates the next move. In the meantime, position yourself between the two lines at the front of the room, making eye contact with participants as they pass. Give compliments, acknowledge efforts, shower praise and bestow positive
reinforcement as they trail by. Tough work, huh?

Gauge Your Group

Adding social opportunities to programs while keeping them safe and effective takes creativity, understanding and flexibility. Participants’ needs always come first. Mix and match the ideas presented here to see what works best with your group. What works well with one class may or may not work well with another. You already know how rewarding it is to teach older adults; now discover how much fun it can be, too.

Tips for Successful Social Interactions

Use Your People Skills. In general, exercising in groups is more appealing to older participants than younger ones. It is your people skills—not your technical skills—that make participants feel welcome and comfortable.
Create a Safe Place. Socializing and interacting must be nonthreatening. Build Rapport. Know your participants. People are more willing to get involved and have an open attitude when they feel you know them personally.
Accommodate New Participants. New exercisers may feel they are not yet part of the regular group. Allow them time to form a few acquaintances before engaging in more extensive social activities.
Time It Right. Generally, the best time to socialize is at the beginning of the session. People are more comfortable interacting when they are “fresh and dry” than when they are “tired and sweaty.”
Be Sensitive. Not everyone will want to participate. Watch for uncomfortable body language and respect personal space (Martin & Lutes 2001).

Picture-Perfect Partnering

Here’s a good socialization technique to encourage interaction in your older-adult class. It’s called “picture-perfect partnering” and is used before class starts.
Have students bring in pictures of themselves from their teenage years. Separate the pictures into two groups based on birth year. Call one group “Year Even (YE),” for people born in even-numbered years, and the other group “Year Odd (YO),” for those born in odd-numbered years. Keep YO pictures aside for now. (Add/remove photos as needed to match groups.)
Scramble YE pictures into a pile. Have each YO participant choose a partner by randomly selecting one YE picture. The person in the picture is the workout partner. (Friends should not partner with each other.) Your room will instantly fill with noise as people talk, inquire, misidentify, laugh, question and look for each other. After everyone has found a partner, re-collect the photos. Handle and store them carefully to prevent damage.
In the next session, repeat the same partnering technique, reversing the groups. Then post the photographs conspicuously in the facility. Watch the fun continue long after the workout has ended as everyone tries to match pictures with other class participants. This type of interaction promotes cohesive group synergy and introduces participants who might not otherwise meet (Hoffman & Jones 2002). In time, these introductions can grow into friendships. Interesting associations may come to light. At Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, it has happened more than once that a “random” partner is someone a participant knew in the past (“Oh my. I recognize this picture. I used to baby-sit you!”).

Ken Alan

Ken Alan is a lecturer in the department of kinesiology at California State University Fullerton and has served on certification committees for ACE, ACSM and AFAA. The author of four book chapters, he is on the editorial review board for the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity. Ken co-stars in the Time-Life Medical Exercise video series and was the content developer, program designer and choreographer for Richard Simmons. A past recipient of the IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year award, Ken’s workshops and lectures have educated and entertained trainers and instructor or many years.

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