Advanced square dancing at the Robert Crown Community Center. Credit: Wendi Kromash

Sandie Bryant, 72, makes the calls softly and clearly: extend the tag, switch the wave, pass the ocean, flip the diamond, ferris wheel, mini busy.

It’s a language unto itself, recognized around the world, and 16 people in an advanced square dancing class at the Robert Crown Community Center hang on her every word.

In two square formations of eight, the dancers follow Bryant’s directions. But ditch any preconceptions. This is not the square dancing we might remember (painfully) from junior high school.

These square dancers move to every kind of music, including jazz, disco, rock and classical. Michael Jackson’s Thriller and a sexy tune from Barry White were only two of the songs played on a recent evening. If it’s available on iTunes, it’s danceable. And for cognitive and physical stimulation as one ages, there may be nothing better.

A study published in 2022 on the effects of square dancing on physical and mental health found that square dancing “significantly” lowered the risk of coronary heart disease and increased leg muscle strength among older adults. How better to stay in shape?

BJ Douglas (from left), Laura McDaniel, Sandie Bryant and Dave Mischler stop for a photo during a break between square dances. Credit: Wendi Kromash

“Once [people] start improving and moving with confidence, they enjoy it,” said 83-year-old Betty Jean Douglas, an avid square dancer known to all as BJ. She’s also an “angel” dancer, one who helps newer dancers. “I was a high school phys-ed teacher for more than 38 years, and there is so much to be said about being active. I feel like I did in my 50s!”

She’s not alone. Ahead of the city’s Aging Well Conference this week, the RoundTable checked in on a few of the activities seniors practice to stay active and healthy.

Fancy footwork

Developing healthy habits you can continue as you age is something Ken Schaefle, a retired marketing professor, took to heart 25 years ago when he participated in a national study on diabetes prevention. He was assigned to the group making only lifestyle changes without any medication.

Flash forward to 2023. Schaefle, now 88, does not have diabetes or take any medication for diabetes prevention or cholesterol. He is a regular at the McGaw Y, where he does an hour of strength training Tuesday through Friday under Tojuan Jones’ guidance. For the past 17 years, he also has taken three one-hour Pilates lessons with Gail Tangeros. 

Ken Schaefle and Virginia Mullin at the Town Club. Credit: Courtesy of Ken Schaefle

Last year, he took up a new activity. He and a friend joined the nonprofit Town Club in Kenilworth, a club that promotes formal ballroom dancing. To improve his finesse on the dance floor, he started taking lessons three times a week, which improved both his form and his footwork. “Dancing is great for your brain and your coordination, as well as enhancing your social life,” he said. “I love it!” 

Shooting hoops

Or consider Neil Milbert, 84, a retired sports journalist who plays basketball three times a week in pickup games at Robert Crown (Tuesdays), the Levy Senior Center (Thursdays), and Brooks Park in Chicago (Fridays). Old timers may recall his sports byline in the Chicago Tribune. Milbert also runs about four 5K races a year.

“But it’s not as rewarding [as basketball] because there aren’t enough people in my age group,” he said. 

Retired sports journalist and regular basketball player Neil Milbert keeps trophies and memorabilia in his basement office. Credit: Wendi Kromash

Courting success

Finally there’s pickleball, the fastest-growing sport in the United States in 2023 – an amalgam of tennis, badminton and ping pong.

It offers a good cardiovascular workout, it’s social and it’s easy to learn. The McGaw YMCA offers many pickleball activities. The Robert Crown Community Center has open and rented courts and the Levy Senior Center has two temporary courts.

The RoundTable has just scraped the surface of senior fitness activities with this brief look at square dancing, ballroom dancing, basketball and pickleball. There are so many ways older Evanston residents get and stay fit – walking, swimming, yoga, water aerobics, biking and gardening.

The city’s Aging Well Conference this week will offer a variety of workshops on topics including health and wellness, safety, nutrition, technology, legal issues, financial planning and more. And it concludes Sunday with the Hoops for the Ages 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends senior adults spend time each week on moderate-intense activity (such as brisk walking), activities that build muscle strength and activities that enhance balance.  According to the CDC website, “regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health. It can prevent or delay many of the health problems that seem to come with age. It also helps your muscles grow stronger so you can keep doing your day-to-day activities without becoming dependent on others.”

Wendi Kromash

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

The RoundTable will try to post comments within a few hours, but there may be a longer delay at times. Comments containing mean-spirited, libelous or ad hominem attacks will not be posted. Your full name and email is required. We do not post anonymous comments. Your e-mail will not be posted.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. I’m interested in the square dancing classes at Robert Crown but I can’t find any info on the web about where to sign up. Can someone post the info? Thanks!