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Retired dance teacher brings the joy of movement to an older set

Elaine Shannon in a dance class taught by Lynn Modell.

Joanne Rathe/Globe staff

Elaine Shannon in a dance class taught by Lynn Modell.

For nearly three decades, dance teacher Lynn Modell brought the joy of movement to students of all shapes and sizes at Brookline High School.

Since retiring in June, she has been bringing that same thrill of gliding and spinning across a dance floor to their parents, and other adults.

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Modell’s new modern/jazz dance class at United Parish in Brookline welcomes not just all shapes and sizes, but a range of abilities, and is geared toward adults who danced in their younger years but stopped as the exigencies of daily life interfered.

Drop-in students have included a former Broadway hoofer as well as enthusiastic amateurs ranging in age from 24 to 68.

“My main goal is to work with people who aren’t training to be dancers but want that enjoyable experience,” says Modell, who lives in Newton, “to get back to something they’ve been away from for a long time, so it’s not overly technical, but fun with some good information about the body. The challenge is to make everyone feel welcome.”

On a recent Tuesday morning, 10 dancers in yoga togs and sweat pants cut loose to music ranging from mellow New Age jazz to Michael Jackson. In the circle warm-up, the allemande sequence sparks giggles as dancers try to remember which hand goes where. But by the end of class, they had woven isolated exercises into a miniature dance routine.

Lynn Modell taught a dance class in hall at United Parish in Brookline.

Joanne Rathe/Globe staff

Lynn Modell taught a dance class in hall at United Parish in Brookline.

“Now I propose we do this starting on the other foot,” Modell says with a mischievous grin, challenging not just body but brain.

Unlike most dance exercise programs, Modell uses movement to tap into creative expression, something many of us lose to everyday pragmatism.

“It’s about so much more than working up a sweat,” she says. “There has to be an artistic element. You should feel transported when you dance, that you’ve gone to another place. It’s not the time to be self-critical, to compare yourself to others. You should be fully immersed in the moment, in the art form.”

Mia Louik has danced since early childhood — ballet, modern, tap, jazz, even hip-hop. But she stopped when family life became too demanding, and hadn’t taken a dance class in roughly 15 years. Now in her 60s, she’s reveling in reconnecting to a lifelong passion in a way that is good for both body and soul.

“It’s an emotional expression through my body. When we did those chassés across the floor, I felt like I was flying,’’ she says. “And it’s good for your brain to do something you haven’t done in awhile.”

Neurologist Reisa Sperling, 53, had a career dancing on Broadway before going to medical school. “But I always kind of missed dancing,” she confesses. “My daughter studied with Lynn and that’s what turned me on to taking classes again. It feels very freeing to dance in an environment where I don’t care if I look foolish.”

Modell tells the class: “It’s important to accept where you are at this moment and to think where you want to be.” That philosophy is key to her teaching style.

Lawyer Rita Kraner, 34, of Cambridge, the only student in the session who isn’t from Brookline, first took classes with Modell when she emigrated from Russia in the ninth grade, and is now five months pregnant with her first child.

“She has this amazing ability to put out moves anyone can do but still feel like a dancer,’’ says Kraner. “It’s about stirring creativity, sensuality.”

Emma Dreyfus, 24, who took classes with Modell in high school before continuing dance in college, appreciates the opportunity to work on details and nuances in a noncompetitive environment. “It’s not just about fitness, it’s about engaging with your body, alignment, artistry, and subtleties of movement,” she says.

Elaine Shannon stopped dancing when she had children, but started back up seven years ago. Now 59, she works out and takes tap classes several times a week. Modell’s class offers a different kind of movement experience.

“It’s more spiritual. I feel like it really connects me to the universe,” says Shannon.

“When I work out at the gym, it’s almost like I’m defying the universe, saying I’m not growing old, I’m never gonna die. With this, I’m just pure dance. Everything else goes away and I just feel good being in my body.”

Louik adds, “It’s reaffirming that I can still do things I did when I was younger. It makes me feel ageless. If I fantasize about what to do when I’m really old, I’d like to think I still could dance.”

Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.
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