By Gail Evans
Some stereotypes die hard. It’s time to bury the stereotype of senior centers as dreary places where old people sit around waiting for lunch and a game of bingo. I just spent several weeks attending classes and activities at the four Greenwich House centers serving our community, and believe me, that stereotype is so wrong! The centers are busy, cheerful places with diverse and interesting memberships, and the classes—well, I was blown away! Dip into my senior center “diary” to learn why.
But facts first. There are some 250 senior centers throughout the City, run by non-profits like Greenwich House with funding from the City’s Department for the Aging. Membership is free, so are classes and activities, although centers ask for contributions for lunch and sometimes for activities. Greenwich House operates four senior centers—Center on the Square at 20 Washington Square North; Judith C. White at 27 Barrow Street; Our Lady of Pompeii at 25 Carmine Street; and Independence Plaza at 310 Greenwich Street.
Shakespeare (Center on the Square)
I’ve taken Shakespeare courses and seen many performances, but this class is amazing. I’m sure my 50-60 classmates (from all over the City) agree. Actor Leo Schaff takes us through The Merchant of Venice line-by-line, his voice a marvel of interpretation, his comments challenging us to imagine what the characters are thinking and feeling, and to appreciate what Shakespeare does with every word. We revel in the language and the insights. Schaff’s been leading this class for years at Center on the Square and other centers. What a New York treasure! I can’t wait to learn what play we’ll do next.
Middle Eastern Dancing (Judith C. White)
With awe I watch as the six participants move sinuously to the music, their glamour embellished by silk scarves and gold coin belts. Not easy! You have to coordinate arms, shoulders, fingers, upper body, belly and hips while mindful of dance steps and rhythm. You have to feel—and therefore look—sexy, beautiful, enticing. “I was tickled by the idea of belly dancing at a senior center,” one woman confides. “It’s erotic, you know!” Two others praised the class as a great fitness and weight loss workout. Instructor Margrecia also leads Line Dance and Movement classes at Mary C. White and Independence Plaza. She’s a powerhouse who could motivate even a klutz like me!
Healthy Eating (Independence Plaza)
I’m taking notes on this session in the center’s dining room. Enthusiastic Chef Irbania Tavares is demonstrating how to make a quick, healthy dish of lentils I’d like to try at home. “It doesn’t have to be from scratch to be healthy,” she says, opening lentil cans. “But let’s not stint on fresh basil, that really makes the dish!” When it’s finished, we all sample. So good! No wonder this class is popular! Chef Irbania also serves it up at Our Lady of Pompeii and Center on the Square, where it‘s funded through a Healthy Eating Grant from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.
Loss and Loneliness Group (Center on the Square)
Other groups—like “Let’s Talk” at this center, and “Friday Café” at Judith C. White—let loose on politics, pet peeves, other favorite topics. But here the focus is the shared experience of loss. I hesitate to intrude on this small, intimate gathering, but soon feel comfortable. The Chair of the center’s Senior Advisory Committee started the group in recognition that many center members had lost loved ones. He and his wife are nominal group leaders, but people don’t need much encouragement to speak freely. Respect, compassion and solace mark every interaction. I notice this about Greenwich House centers. Members take care of each other.
Let’s Jam (Center on the Square)
These older musicians have been jamming in Washington Square Park for years. But they play indoors at this center across from the Park every Wednesday afternoon, to the delight of members. Seated in a semi-circle at the window end of this fine “parlor” overlooking the Park, they play the great songs of the past 70 years, granting every request and calling up our memories. Their enjoyment at jamming is palpable. So is ours.
Whitney Museum Art (Judith C. White)
This six-week class is presented free at the center by Whitney Museum educators. For five weeks the class makes art using materials and techniques similar to those used by artists in the Whitney’s current show. The sixth session is at the museum itself, where participants get to see the actual exhibit, “Making Knowing: Craft in Art.” Today we begin by examining reproductions of works by three of the show’s artists who were inspired by “women’s work” such as quilts, embroidery, decoupage. Our creative juices start to flow as we discuss how these artists achieved the effects we admire. We then apply their techniques to our own inspirations, cutting shapes from solid and print fabric supplied by the instructor and gluing them to rectangles of felt. We’ve made fabric collages! Last week the class made constructions from ribbons and paper. What fun!
Opera (Center on the Square)
“This class is about discovering what makes opera worthwhile,” says instructor Simon Saad. “Enjoying great voices and melodies is fine, an indulgence of the senses, but I challenge you to develop critical ability, to discover what’s transcendent and eternal.” Wow! This is stuff for the cognoscenti, and my fellow participants follow intently. He then launches into anecdotes, opinions, a wide-ranging discussion, before playing a video of the first act of Britten’s “Rape of Lucretia” and inviting our reactions. Incidentally I learn there’s a cadre of older New Yorkers who know which senior centers to go to for classes on Verdi, or early opera, or the current opera scene. Who knew?
ALSO, I enjoyed Knee Health (Judith C. White), a small class of knee, hip and lower back sufferers devoted to instructor Maura Nolan’s personal approach as she leads them through discussion, gentle exercises and guided meditation; Tai Chi (Center on the Square and Our Lady of Pompeii) where I finally found instruction I could follow; Ceramics (Judith C. White), taught by potters from Greenwich House Pottery, which also fires participants’ clay sculptures and bowls. I wish I’d been able to sample a wealth of other classes, exercise groups, movie viewings, seminars. Thank goodness I didn’t let the negative stereotype keep me away!