Cues from the Ballroom

Former competitive dancer leads program for mobility-restricted seniors

Debra Saalfield (far left, on stage) has invented a new form of seated exercise.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Music and movement cannot be separated. The body — no matter its age or condition — responds to rhythm and melody by instinct. And that irresistible response informs Debra Saalfield’s innovative program Sit Step Sing. 

She teaches the movement program at six senior-living facilities in the Asheville and Hendersonville area, combining simple movements with music drawn from the eras in which her participants’ younger selves flourished.

It’s not chair yoga, though. “The program is distinctly different in a few ways,” says Saalfield. Instead of a meditative soundtrack, Sit Step Sing is centered around “high-energy, upbeat music that participants often sing along to,” she explains. The other difference is the source of the movements themselves. Activities include arm exercises that engage the torso, shoulders, hips, wrists and thighs — all drawn from Saalfield’s past experience as a high-level competitive ballroom dancer and ballroom-dance teacher. 

“We use simplified dance movements throughout the class,” she explains, listing “dig” steps (heel on the floor), tap steps, and side-to-side steps, “all choreographed to dynamic music. 

“I don’t think I could have developed this program without the intensive dance training I received.”

Sit Step Sing came along out of necessity, when Saalfield’s husband was diagnosed with bone cancer several years ago and underwent a grueling, months-long treatment regimen. “I tried to coerce my husband to exercise in a chair to music when he was so ill after nine invasive surgeries,” Saalfield says. “He could barely get off the couch. That was when I came up with the idea for the program.”

By 2019, Saalfield has formalized the program around music from the Big Band era and introduced Sit Step Sing to a group of assisted-living facilities in Naples, Florida. “After three months, I ended up [teaching] in nine different long-term care facilities,” she remembers. Music is the crucial catalyst, and Saalfield spends a good deal of time researching what songs would be most meaningful to any group she teaches.

“Popular songs from the ’30s and ‘40s have a huge appeal,” she says. “This is where the sing-a-long portion of the class comes in. I encourage them to sing with me throughout the class.”

Sessions last between 30 and 45 minutes, depending on the overall fitness and agility of the group. While Saalfield’s current clients, except for one racquet sports club, are all in assisted-living or long-term-care facilities, she hopes to broaden her range of venues — despite the fact she’s already teaching five days a week.

 “What started as a business idea has now become very close to my heart,” she says of the program. “Bringing joy to people after the pandemic is heartwarming and fulfilling.”

Sit Step Sing, Asheville and Hendersonville. Debra Saalfield offers in-home programs and various lesson plans. For more information, call 239-777-0791 or see sitstepsing.com. 

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