Nfld. & Labrador

Meet the barefoot-dancing 'wellderlies' of Mount Pearl

A group of seniors is staying fit and having fun with Nia, a movement practice that focuses on the mind, body and spirit.

Almost 99-year-old student a first for instructor Elaine Dunphy

Elaine Dunphy, centre, has been teaching Nia since 2017, with students ranging in age from four to almost 100. (Maggie Gillis/CBC)

An upbeat bongo drum instrumental plays on a small set of speakers as instructor Elaine Dunphy begins her Nia class the same way she always does — by asking the women standing in a circle to take two steps forward into the practice and repeat these words: "Through movement I find health."

The one man in the class being held in the basement of the Park Place Community Centre in Mount Pearl — 86-year-old George Etheridge — gets a special shout-out from the teacher.

"Welcome, George, because it takes a lot of guts to be the only man in the room with a bunch of women," Dunphy said as the class laughed.

"Nia" is a physical conditioning program that originated in the '80s, combining dance and yoga and other non-impact aerobics.

Elsie Forsey and her brother George Etheridge take part. (Maggie Gillis/CBC)

Etheridge was there for the second time with his sister Elsie Forsey, who turns 99 in March.

"I'm just a young feller," he said. "I came here because you know, for Elsie's sake.… You know, she's always been very, very active. The first time she was in hospital was when she was 96," said Etheridge. 

Forsey is most definitely the oldest student Dunphy has had since she started teaching Nia in February 2017, and this group holds a special place in her heart.

Dunphy says Nia is about movement, not dance, so if you have two left feet she wants you in her class. (Maggie Gillis/CBC)

"Oh my goodness. This class is growing every week. And then Elsie joined us last week at 99 years old with her 86-year-old brother in tow. And it just really hit home to me how important movement is as we age," said Dunphy. 

"I call them my 'wellderlies,' and the name has really kind of stuck. I can't take any credit for it, but that's what they are. They're well and they're elderly and I'm going to be one of them when I grow up." 

'It's not this pounding of your body'

Dunphy warms up the class by running through a series of gentle movements for the 13 main joints in the body, starting with the feet and moving to the knees, hips, shoulders, elbows, wrists, fingers and spine.

It gets her bare- and sock-footed wellderlies ready for what's to come — a mixture of martial arts movements and dance designed to feed the body, mind and spirit.

Betty Hearn, left, and Patricia Pike have been with the class since it started. (Maggie Gillis/CBC)

"I've been doing Nia and it's tremendous, because it's not this pounding of your body," said Betty Hearn, 73. 

"As you age in Newfoundland, most of the time you end up with arthritis, so I find it's a benefit for my hands, for my feet, and you know, your health is in your own hands."

Dunphy and her mother Lorraine Gillespie move during a free dance part of the class. (Maggie Gillis/CBC)

Elsie Forsey is dealing with a bad back, so she does all her moves seated in a chair.

"There are women in different stages of life. I've got women who've lost their husbands," said Dunphy. "I've got women who have had their knee replaced and they don't think they're going to be able to move anymore. And Nia gives them an alternative. They can do my class in a chair. They don't have to be able to stand."

Laughter and music

"It gives me renewed energy. Energy I didn't wake up with. The music does it mentally and you're physically active, so I think your whole system enjoys it," said Sheila Fever, who at 69 calls herself a "junior senior."

"I feel like I could tackle the world after this class, or at least my laundry," she joked.

Sheila Feaver, left, keeps an eye on the ball as it is bounced on top of the parachute. (Maggie Gillis/CBC)

Dunphy also uses props such as flowing veils and kinetic spirals to get people moving, but things get a little rowdier when the parachute comes out.  

It's a throwback to childhood gym classes, where a parachute is spread out and lifted up and down by the students, as they run underneath, calling each other out to change places before it settles on their heads.

Marlene Kelly and Barb Kelly play with kinetic spirals.

"I'm doing my exercise without even realizing.… I'm still doing squats but we're doing it with the parachute. We're just having fun but we're actually doing the proper moves and that is awesome," said Patricia Pike.

"I'm a wellderlie and proud of it. I'm 72 — I'm doing as much as I can to keep myself well, to have fun, exercise my body and exercise my brain."

People switch places before the parachute falls gets the blood pumping. (Maggie Gillis/CBC)

Spreading joy is Dunphy's mission, and the class yells the word in unison as it comes up in the lyrics one of the songs.

"My practice is my lifestyle now. I have adopted this. It really did change my life. That sounds like super dramatic but it is a movement practice that lets you take your joy into the day," she said.

"It fills me up.… When I hear women around the circle connecting and singing the music and I'm watching the smiles on their faces, I just know that I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be."

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