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Power of Healing: How a dance class is helping memory care patients

Music is seemingly sparking memories in a group of special dance students.

ROCKY RIVER, Ohio — There's a dance class like no other, not because of tricky steps, but because of meaningful ones.

Most of the students are in memory care at Lakeside Assisted Living in Rocky River. Remembering is an obvious challenge for them, but in this class, the music seems to awaken their spirits.

And more healing? Their teacher, Melissa Renner, holds this movement close to her heart.

"I actually started volunteering at nursing homes and memory care facilities when I was very young," Melissa told us. "My grandmother and stepfather, I lost them to Alzheimer's disease, which clearly hits close to home."

Melissa is a trained dancer with a former career in corporate wellness. She says she started Active for Life so that her dance classes could be more inclusive.

"I got into ballroom dancing as an adult, and I went into facilities, too," she said. "So it was independent living facilities to teach ballroom dancing, and very few people could participate because they didn't have the balance or strength.

"So I went home, I put myself in a chair and just started putting together seated Cha Cha steps and Mambo steps, coupled with basic exercises."

The result was a modified dance class with custom-made tap shoes for a population deserving of that kind of mental and physical wellness.

"[It's] bringing a lot of energy and fun and things that can help them with their memory, because music and dance is the last area of the brain to be impacted by Alzheimer's disease and dementia," Renner explained. "That's why it's such a therapeutic tool."

And as the teacher, she's touched by the effect the class has on the students.

"I can't tell you how many times I've gone into a facility and I've had to hold back tears just because it's so moving to see," she said.

Emotional, because these classes are giving her students a priceless gift: The freedom to express themselves in a way many haven't done in decades.

Virginia Nutting says she loves the class because it's nostalgic and it's good for her health.

"I used to tap dance and I did a little ballet, too," she told us. "I have spinal stenosis and I need to move and do all that kind of business."

It's a class that sparks joy and evokes memories that have laid still until the students moved their feet.

"Melissa came to my house and did the tap dance lessons with my father, Howard Reeve, who was almost 101 years old," Patricia Smith remembered.

Patricia says she was overcome when her dad remembered every step, dancing side by side with his sister.

"It brought tears to our eyes," she said. "I videotaped him and sent it to my sister and my brother, and they both cried just to see him remembering and doing those steps, so it was a wonderful thing."

Melissa says she has no plans on stopping her mission.

"I want to help as many individuals as I can with this," she declared. "It's one of the most rewarding feelings. I can't explain it. It's hard to articulate because it's overwhelming in a good way, in a very loving, profound way."

To learn more about Active for Life, click HERE.

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