Teen dancers get Encinitas seniors on their feet


When Sarah Ludington’s grandmother was going through chemotherapy last winter, one of the things that lifted her spirits was dance.

“Sometimes she watched my dance videos and sometimes we’d just be baking cookies in the kitchen together and we’d start dancing. It could turn a bad day into a good day and it brought a lot of happiness. I found it really inspiring,” said Sarah, 16, who is on the varsity dance team at Torrey Pines High School.

After her grandmother recovered last spring, Sarah wanted to find a way to use her passion for dance to brighten the hearts of other seniors around North County. So a few months ago, the Carmel Valley teen started Dance2Heal, a nonprofit where teen dancers like herself can perform not only for seniors, children and people with disabilities, but with them.

On Aug. 24, Sarah and three other girls with Dance2Heal presented their second free dance program at an Encinitas heart clinic. Sarah’s mom, Dr. Katherine Ludington, is a cardiologist who hosted the event and invited some of her patients for the hour-long program in her office lobby.

The teens performed hip-hop, contemporary and tap dance routines, and then they invited all the patients to get involved by learning some steps for a group hip-hop dance to Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling.”

Dr. Ludington said she hopes the dance events inspire her patients to consider dance as an entertaining way to keep “heart healthy.” She said a simple regimen of just 20 minutes of exercise six days a week can reduce the chance of stroke or heart attack by 30 percent.

“Dance is a fun way to get their exercise. They can do it at home, it doesn’t require any equipment and it doesn’t feel like exercise or hard work,” she said.

Joining Sarah for the performance were fellow Torrey Pines dancers Madeline Lim and Rebekah Hardeman, both 17, as well as Sarah’s 11-year-old sister, Abigail. All three girls said they love expressing themselves through dance as a hobby, but Sarah dreams of making a career in dance.

“I’ve been dancing as long as I can remember. I think I started when I was 3 years old at Mommy and Me classes,” she said. “There’s just something I feel when I’m dancing that’s hard to explain. It’s like nothing else.”

Sarah just returned from a summer dance workshop at UCLA where she studied world dance. Her favorite style is hip-hop, which she performs at Torrey Pines and as a member of Future Shock, a youth team run by San Diego’s Culture Shock dance school.

This was the second Dance2Heal event for Madeline, who like Sarah and Rebekah started her senior year at Torrey Pines this week. She said at the first event on July 29, one senior woman was so enthusiastic she leapt out of her chair and joined the girls during their demonstration performance. Others in wheelchairs “danced” along using their arms.

“It was really amazing because they were all so receptive,” Madeline said. “When you think of healing, you don’t exactly think of dancing. But the participants really enjoyed getting involved and had big smiles on their faces. Everyone had a good time.”

Sarah said the goal of the program is to break down patients’ notion that just because they have some mobility limitations they can’t dance.

“They’re not too old and it’s not something they can’t do. This is good for their physical and mental health,” she said.

About a dozen patients in their 50s to 70s attended the Aug. 24 performance and smiled and applauded as the dancers performed routines that included hip-hop and dance hall steps, balletic contemporary and rhythm tap.

It took just a bit of coaxing to get the patients out of their chairs to try a few steps of their own. One woman in her 70s shouted out “don’t go too fast, I’m old!” And a hesitant man across the room asked for a handout so he could study a diagram of the steps before getting started.

But most of the patients eagerly joined in with touch steps, half-spins and choreographed arm movements. A few said they wished their interactive dance portion of the program was longer because it was their favorite part.

Heart patient Christina Tillotson was one of the most active dancers in the group. The Encinitas senior said dance is her preferred form of exercise and she was eager to learn some hip-hop steps.

“I take a lot of classes and this one was really fun,” she said.

Among those who came to watch was Encinitas Mayor Kristin Gaspar, a former competitive ballroom dancer and longtime volunteer for local senior fitness programs. She praised the teens for making the cross-generational connection with the seniors and hopes Dance2Heal will grow deep roots in the community.

The next Dance2Heal event has not been announced, but Sarah said she’s in talks to bring it to a larger audience at the La Costa Glen retirement community. For details, visit

— Pam Kragen writes for The San Diego Union-Tribune