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Even the youngest state in the nation grows old eventually. Are we ready for it?

Tango! Waltz! Rumba! As southern Utah ages, dance keeps ‘em active and young at heart

By 2060, the percentage of Utahns over 65 is projected to double. But for many, that age is just a number. Some older Utahns in St. George are keeping their minds and bodies active through dancing.
David Condos
/
KUER
By 2060, the percentage of Utahns over 65 is projected to double. But for many, that age is just a number. Some older Utahns in St. George are keeping their minds and bodies active through dancing.

Two years ago, Lucy Noorda didn’t know where to turn.

Her husband had just passed away, and the 78-year-old suddenly felt lost.

“After taking care of him for seven years, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I didn't know who I was,” she said.

Then one day, she walked into a line dancing class at the senior citizen center in St. George. She had spent her whole life thinking she had two left feet but quickly picked up the steps. Now, she dances at the center four times a week.

“I found myself with line dancing,” Noorda said. “Line dancing is my life, my family. I just love it.”

On Wednesday mornings, the big room at the St. George Active Life Center fills with line dancers. Ramona Wente, foreground, described the class as the best part of her week.
David Condos
/
KUER
On Wednesday mornings, the big room at the St. George Active Life Center fills with line dancers. Ramona Wente, foreground, described the class as the best part of her week.

It’s a similar story for many of the dancers in this class, which is one of many the center offers for people over 60. And as Utah’s population shifts older in the coming decades, offering opportunities for residents to keep their minds, bodies and social connections strong later in life will become even more vital.

At 9 a.m. on a Wednesday, the center’s big room has already begun to fill with the sounds of laughter and music. A few dozen dancers decked out in their best activewear — mostly women — file into long lines across the hardwood floor.

Instructor Pam Ratz, who's 77, hops onto a small stage with wall-length mirrors at one end of the room and fires up the week’s playlist.

If you’re expecting the type of line dancing you might see at a western bar or a wedding, Ratz said, think again.

“This is much more on a serious scale,” Ratz said. “There's a lot that goes into the kind of line dancing we do.”

Instructor Pam Ratz calls out dance steps from the stage during class.
David Condos
/
KUER
Instructor Pam Ratz calls out dance steps from the stage during class.

They tango. They waltz. They rumba.

Ratz’s voice echoes off the vaulted ceiling as she calls out a rapid succession of dance steps.

Some of the moves she’s pulled from an international line dancing database. Others are her own design. Since her husband died in 2020, she often has trouble sleeping at night. Coming up with steps for a new song can help.

“[Choreography] can occupy my mind,” Ratz said. “I'm always driven by the music.”

Watching this group cut a rug, you might never know these dancers are in their 70s or even 80s.

Toni Casados, who has been coming to the class for five years, said it keeps her young.

“I’m 85, and I’m still truckin’ around,” she said. “I look forward to coming here every Wednesday. I make it a point on my calendar: Dancing.”

Toni Casados, foreground, has been dancing with the class for five years. She said remembering the steps helps keep her memory sharp.
David Condos
/
KUER
Toni Casados, foreground, has been dancing with the class for five years. She said remembering the steps helps keep her memory sharp.

As an exercise session, the class is no joke. For an hour and a half, the dancers work up a sweat to uptempo numbers like “Surfin’ USA” by The Beach Boys or Shooter Jennings’ cover of Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life.”

They pivot from Charlestons to grapevines so fast, it’s hard to keep up.

Like many here, 75-year-old Ramona Wente moved to southwest Utah from somewhere else — in her case, northern Utah. And the community she’s stepped into in this class has made her new town feel more like home.

“I love line dancing. It makes all the difference in my life,” she said. “Favorite hours of my week are line dancing.”

The family atmosphere is palpable.

During a break, someone passes around a tray of homemade treats. Sometimes, people bring vegetables to share from their gardens. The dancers get together outside of class, too — going to lunch, to the movies, even fitting in some extra dance practice.

Valerie Cazier — introduced by one of her classmates as “the ballerina” — started dancing at age 3.

Now 79, she said it’s harder to keep moving than it used to be. But the class offers accountability and motivation.

“You know what exercises you should do. You know all that kind of stuff,” she said. “But it makes it easier if you kind of have a place to go and a commitment.”

In his office nearby, center supervisor Brian Akins thumbs through the monthly newsletter that lists all the other activities folks can choose from here. There’s Zumba on Tuesdays. Jazzercise on Fridays. In one class called cardio drumming, people use drumsticks to pummel a giant ball in a bucket.

“These classes just get the seniors movin’ and sweatin’ and groovin’,” he said. “They get rockin’.”

With all due respect to previous generations, people choosing to sweat through their golden years is a bit of a new phenomenon as more baby boomers enter retirement.

“They're not wanting to come to an old senior center … like their parents and grandparents did,” Akins said. “They're a lot more active. They’re a lot more health conscious.”

Dancer Lucy Noorda, left, stands with instructors Pam Ratz, center, and Sherry Adcock after class. Noorda said this dancing community has become like family to her.
David Condos
/
KUER
Dancer Lucy Noorda, left, stands with instructors Pam Ratz, center, and Sherry Adcock after class. Noorda said this dancing community has become like family to her.

That generational shift was a big reason behind a rebranding two years ago from the St. George Senior Center to the St. George Active Life Center.

Washington County itself is changing, too.

Not only is it growing faster than just about any other part of Utah, it's also growing older faster. In 2022, the median age was 39. Projections from the University of Utah say that by 2060, the county’s median age will jump to nearly 52 years old.

Akins said there’s already demand for the center to add to its list of active classes, but there’s just not enough space to do much more right now.

He’s seen line dancing and other classes have tangible impacts for people recovering from injuries. But he said the benefits go beyond boosting physical health. Having to remember the dance steps keeps their memories sharp, too.

And for many, just getting out of the house to have regular interactions with other people can do wonders for preventing social isolation.

As the morning class winds down, the dancers say their farewells, and center staff begin converting the dance floor into the lunch cafeteria.

Jan Corona, age 72, lingers chatting with some of her classmates. Getting to stay active with women her age and older is an inspiration, she said.

And next Wednesday morning, she and the other dancers will fill this room and spend another 90 minutes keeping each other young.

“It's not what your age is, it’s how you feel,” she said. “You boost each other up. That's what it's all about.”

David Condos is KUER’s southern Utah reporter based in St. George.
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