CHESTERFIELD • More than a dozen men and women sit in chairs spread in front of a stage in a bright room at the Willows at Brooking Park.
Many are chattering. Others sit quietly.
Then ballet instructor Vanessa Woods’ voice cuts through the room.
“OK everybody, we’re jumping off with a Western Symphony today, and if anything hurts don’t do it,” she says.
Woods, seated in a chair facing the seniors, starts doing arm movements as the fast-paced Hershy Kay: Western Symphony starts playing from a small speaker connected to an iPod.
The students mimic their instructor’s arm movements. They stretch their arms to the fingertips.
It is a Vitality Ballet class, helping them exercise as they enjoy music and dance using their chairs as the barre.
In the front row, Dolores Combs, 91, gracefully does porte de bras, a French classical ballet term for a series of smooth and flowing arm movements, from the comfort of her chair.
She forms an oval by keeping the fingertips of both arms almost touching. As the music plays, she stretches her arms into different positions until they’re raised above her head.
The 45-minute session is intense, with barely any breaks.
But these dancers don’t need leotards or pointe shoes.
“No tutus or ballet slippers are required, just a willingness to dance as young as they feel,” said Woods, 31.
She designed the modified chair ballet exercise class for seniors in 2012.
Her company offers group ballet, yoga exercise and water ballet exercise at community centers, senior living and adult daycare facilities across St. Louis city and county.
The professional ballerina relocated from New York City to the St. Louis area in 2011 to join the Chesterfield-based St. Louis Ballet.
In her program, seniors can choose to dance either seated or standing behind chairs that they use as a “barre.”
Even while seated, students can do moves such as relevé, développé and echappé.
The idea to reach out to senior citizens came after Woods injured her leg and was forced to stay away from professional dancing until she was healed.
Her mother encouraged her to pursue the idea.
Though she performs soloist and principal roles, and is also a ballet instructor for children at St. Louis Ballet, Woods felt the need to start something she could call her own.
“I called senior living homes in St. Louis city and county to find out if they would be interested in having their residents trained,” Woods said.
She designed a curriculum for the homes that would suit seniors from 55 to 104 years old.
“The movements in Vitality Ballet class are smooth and rhythmic,” Woods said.
The exercise is designed to make participants feel as if they’re truly dancing.
Dolores Combs is happy with the program. Her love for dancing has been revived through the ballet classes after a couple of months of suffering from asthma.
“I used to live a very active life in my youth, and this class has helped me do some good upper and lower body exercise,” she said.
Combs took ballet and tap dancing classes when she was in grade school at Sherman Park in St. Louis.
She and her second husband were known as “the dance couple,” she said. They had a place in Florida where they would go jitterbugging.
“My late husband and I once went up to dance as an orchestra played in Paris,” she said. “People clapped and gave a standing ovation while the band smiled after we finished dancing.”
Another resident, Carol Gusdorf, 82, used to dance when her children were small.
The class, she said, reminds her of when she used to “jump like deer” across a dance studio when she was a young woman.
“That was the highlight; I felt so free,” she said.
Carol Gusdorf, whose daughter Karen Gusdorf, 60, took part in the class during a visit from Los Angeles, said she knew the classes would be fun and challenging.
As the session came to a close, Woods performed Beethoven’s First Symphony for an excited group of students who cried out for an encore as soon as the dance was over.
The moves they had been doing in the comfort of their chairs were brought to life by a real dancer.
“I’ve never been here, but I’m certainly coming back,” said Phyllis Tirmenstein, an octogenarian who played the violin when she was younger.