Seniors, freed from COVID isolation, sashay in New York dance class

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NEW YORK, March 10 (Reuters) - Seniors sway hips and stomp feet as they salsa, cha-cha, merengue and bachata in a New York dance class to get moving again after two years of COVID-19 pandemic isolation.

Despite stiff joints - or even the loss of a limb - the students stick it out in the free class taught by Walter Perez at the YM & YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood in upper Manhattan.

"I get emotional and need to dance when I hear salsa," said Felix Castillo, whose leg was amputated last year due to complications from diabetes. The 74-year-old trumpet player feels the music and dances in his chair.

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Despite dementia, Eugenia Peralta, 89, cannot help but twirl around the room, prompting her peers to call her "roadrunner," according to her daughter Jackie Peralta.

"COVID took a toll on her. ... Her mobility went down. And she's getting back up again. She doesn't stay in one place."

Perez, 50, and his partner, another Argentinian tango dancer, started the hour-long class in 2013 to introduce Latin social dances to senior centers.

"We saw how our students got happier and improved their physical balance and stability and they socialized," he said.

"So we start with exercise, sitting, so we could include everybody if they have problems with mobility, and then we stand up and we dance a little bit."

When in-person classes resumed after about a year's break, "the stamina wasn't the same, ... so many were missing, so it was very sad," he said. "But we were happy to be here and to come back, to have this courage to keep going."

What drives Perez is the joy of dance that he found at age 21, when his mother died.

"I went to the church to pray. Next to the church in Argentina, there was a tango place. So I started dancing tango and it was therapeutic for me and then became my profession and my way of living," he said.

"So I feel the healing effect of embrace, that metaphor that walking together, that you are not alone, you are walking with the music in an embrace."

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Reporting by Roselle Chen; Editing by Richard Chang and Diane Craft

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