ENCINITAS — Yvonne Harguindeguy Gagliardo has been teaching movement and dance to seniors for 23 years, but there was something about her current class at the Encinitas Senior Center that really got her attention.
“I was surprised with the technical ability of the students and the fact that they are still strong and have a good memory,” she said. “Among them are two belly dancers and former stage and screen dancer Darlene Denver who performed with icons such as Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Cyd Charisse, Juliet Prowse, Bob Fosse and Jimmy Durante. She’s in her 70s and is still gorgeous!”
Joining Denver is friend Marilyn Halder, who danced alongside her on the chorus line 50 years ago in extravagant Moro Landis production numbers starring Xavier Cugat, Ray Bolger, Donald O’Connor, Vaughn Monroe, Edgar Bergen, Teresa Brewer and Kay Starr.
Gagliardo began teaching the free, six-week modern dance workshop titled Aging Creatively on Jan. 4. The hour-long, six-week class is specifically designed for moving bodies, while accommodating the physical needs of students ages 60 to 99.
The program was developed by Jean Isaacs, critically acclaimed, award-winning choreographer whose work has been celebrated throughout Europe, Canada, China, Mexico, Guatemala and the United States. Gagliardo studied, performed and taught with Jean Isaac’s San Diego Dance Theater for more than 25 years.
“I grew up in Fresno, and went to UCSD where I was introduced to modern dance by Christine Lawson who taught the (Martha) Graham Technique and later became dean at the California Institute of Arts (CalArts) in Valencia, Calif.,” she said.
She went on to earn a teaching credential and masters degree in PE/Exercise Physiology which led to a 20-year career as an exercise physiologist for Sharp Mission Park Medical Group. Subsequently, Gagliardo acquired certifications as a Personal Trainer and Fallproof™ Balance and Mobility Specialist Instructor.
“I know all about training the aging body,” she said, adding that she’s approaching her 60th birthday herself.
The most common issue her students deal with, she explained, is osteoarthritis in the knees and hips. “A lot of this is about genetics, being overweight and having accidents,” she added.
Gagliardo likes to mix things up by playing standards by Frank Sinatra and Patsy Cline with music by Adelle and the Black Eyed Peas along with tango, gypsy Spanish and contemporary music.
The class will culminate in the final performance titled, “Romance through Generations,” with performers in costume, and a duet with a professional dancer from the San Diego Dance Theatre on Feb. 15.
Denver, whose stage name was Darlene Daye during her Hollywood career, began performing at the age of 5 at the Shrine Auditorium. She studied dance at the Meglin Studios, made famous by Shirley Temple and Donald O’Connor, which was a popular gathering spot for agents looking for child dancers to cast in roles. Later, Denver performed with Margaret O’Brien in the drama “The Unfinished Dance,” about competition among young ballerinas, that preceded “Black Swan.” She appeared in dancing roles in classic movies including “The Buster Keaton Story,” “Damn Yankees” and “Can-Can” as well as television shows “Hawaiian Eye” and “77 Sunset Strip.”
Although Denver has occasionally taken some tap and jazz classes locally, most of her exercise since retiring from her show business career has been skiing and bicycling.
“I had not done modern dance before I met Yvonne,” she explained. “She is such an adorable, quick-witted instructor. That’s what it attracts me. It’s a fun place, where you want to be because it makes you feel good about your body and having control. It’s enlightening.”
“Aging Creatively,” a satellite program of San Diego Dance Theater, is funded in part by the city of Encinitas and the Mizel Family Foundation Community Grant Program. The project originated with a yearlong San Diego Creative Catalyst Grant for an artist through the San Diego Foundation.
An upcoming documentary titled “The Door is Open” by award-winning producer Kira Carrillo Corser, reveals the joy and surprising health impacts of dance during the project and can be seen soon on KPBS. For more information visit sddt.org.