TOPSFIELD — Dressed in a purple T-shirt and a pair of black sequin sneakers, Vincent Mortellite stepped into Topsfield Town Hall ready for his favorite part of the week — dance class.
The Topsfield resident is one of nearly two dozen senior citizens who participate in Dance Out Dementia, a weekly dance class created by high school student Maggie Chiffer that helps seniors reduce their risk of dementia through dancing.
“She won us over,” Mortellite recalled when Chiffer first spoke of her idea two years ago.
“It’s not so much about the dance,” he added. “You’re moving and having fun. It’s enjoyable.”
Now a senior at Masconomet Regional High School, Chiffer, 17, launched Dance Out Dementia: Train Your Brain with the Beat of Your Feet in 2017 as part of her Girl Scout Gold Award project. Comparable to the Eagle Scout for Boy Scouts, the Gold Award is granted to fewer than 6% of Girl Scouts annually, according to their website.
To earn the honor, she needed to identify a need in her community and complete 80 hours of community service. Chiffer, a dancer for the last nine years, says she knew she needed to incorporate this passion into her final project.
“It’s something I absolutely love,” she said. Trained in ballet, tap, jazz, pointe and lyrical, to name a few, the teen is currently on the competitive dance team at North Shore Performing Arts Center.
Referencing a study from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, she said dancing reduces a person’s risk of dementia by 76%, which is twice as much as reading. Because of the repetition of steps and combination of new routines, dancing combines physical and cognitive stimulation, says the New England Journal of Medicine.
“I know I found the perfect project for me,” said Chiffer, who has several family members affected by dementia.
After creating an eight-week dance curriculum and delivering three workshops on brain health, she earned the Gold Award in 2018 and transformed Dance Out Dementia into a business. The class, now run through the Topsfield Council on Aging, is open to all and averages 20 to 25 seniors each week.
A welcoming class
Joni Larson, 78, says she joined the dance class about six months ago as a way to socialize and meet new people.
“I want to keep my body moving,” said the Topsfield resident, who added that learning new combinations helps keep her mind active. Dance styles taught in class include tap, jazz, ballroom, swing and even the cha-cha.
This year, Dance Out Dementia will perform at the Topsfield Fair on Sunday, Oct. 6. Chiffer said they have a 90-minute set planned, complete with three dance routines as well as a demonstration of one of their typical dance classes. Having previously performed at other events, the group also danced in the recital at Chiffer’s dance studio, where she says they received a standing ovation.
A former Irish step dancer, Eileen Reichardt of Topsfield isn’t too nervous to perform on stage at the annual fair. She even encouraged her friend Charlotte Schilling to begin participating in Dance Out Dementia.
“I love it. It got me out of the house,” said Schilling, a smile forming on her face. Because of the program, she went on to say how she’s taking part in more Topsfield Council on Aging events.
While some seniors in the class do have dementia, Chiffer says others come to stay active or work to reduce their risk of developing future memory loss or impairment.
Gathered in the upstairs room at Topsfield Town Hall one Thursday afternoon, nearly 20 men and women — all dressed in purple Dance Out Dementia tees — began with a series of warm-up exercises while sitting in chairs. After a series of head rolls, arm stretches and heel taps, they soon got to their feet and moved their bodies to “Waterloo" by ABBA.
Danvers resident and Chiffer’s grandmother, Ellie Morrison, said she was shy at first at the thought of dancing, but she couldn't disappoint her granddaughter.
“I came and the rest is history,” she said. “This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Queuing the song, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” the seniors learned a new jive dance containing quick combinations of side-to-side steps, kick-ball-change sequences and claps.
“Let’s take it from the top and try it with the music,” Chiffer announced to the group, who were arranged in a semicircle around her.
As for the future, the teen wants to continue teaching the class right in her hometown and is looking to expand into other communities.
Through Dance Out Dementia, Chiffer said she hopes her class raises awareness of dementia within the community and educates people that this is not just a concern for older people. It's important for people of all ages to be thinking about brain health, she says, especially when changes to the brain can occur years earlier.
“I’ve made so many friends,” she said of her students. “I really love each one of them, we share our lives with one another.”
Staff writer Alyse Diamantides can be reached at 978-338-2660 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
Dance Out Dementia will perform Sunday, Oct. 6, at the Topsfield Fair from 2:30 to 4 p.m. in the Education Center, which is near parking Lot A.