Dance class at the local department store? Seniors give it a whirl

Loretta Borgman is seated with 30 or so others in a circle. The participants join hands and rock from side to side, keeping time with the music. Ten minutes into the aerobics program, they're on their feet, doing line dances to a decidedly disco beat.

So what's unusual about this aerobics class?

The location, for starters. It's being held in the former yard-goods section of a large suburban department store at the Northland Shopping Center here. Then there are the participants themselves - all at least age 60, all active older adults.

''This is just great,'' Mrs. Borgman says. ''I'm working up a sweat.''

''It gives us something to talk about at home, so that we don't stare at each other at the table aimlessly,'' says Herbert Haker, a retiree with twinkling eyes. ''If you stay at home, you become lethargic.''

The program - the Older Adult Service and Information System (OASIS) - offers courses in art, computers, even clowning. But what it's really doing is breaking down stereotypes, says executive director Marylen Mann.

''Because you reach 60 or beyond does not mean that you can't still learn and go on,'' she says. Older adults expand horizons; younger shoppers are exposed to senior citizens who are active and independent.

Besides OASIS, for example, Mr. Haker and his wife, Violet, deliver meals to senior citizens and participate in a local historical society.

''We've tried not to isolate ourselves,'' Mrs. Haker says. ''We never travel with senior citizen groups. (Otherwise) I think you get very stale.''

One reason for the program's success is its location.

A department store has no stigma of being for ''old'' people, Ms. Mann says, and attracts people who might avoid senior citizen centers. ''We knew we had a lot of people that we weren't reaching anywhere else.''

Started in September 1982 as an expansion of a smaller program, OASIS now offers courses in three Famous-Barr department stores in the St. Louis area. Membership has zoomed to more than 10,000. Many courses have waiting lists.

OASIS has been so successful that it's expanding to other cities. Last October, programs were begun in Baltimore and Cleveland. Next month, a store in Los Angeles will open OASIS classes. Ms. Mann also has submitted a proposal to the federal Administration on Aging to open locations in eight other cities around the country.

Many members here were originally lured by Famous-Barr's Christmas and Easter breakfasts for senior citizens. Last week, for example, some 3,000 older adults attended the free banquet. Gift certificates were given away, and participating stores opened two hours early so the older adults could leisurely shop. Seniors signing up for a free OASIS membership card qualify for a 10 percent discount at Famous-Barr stores.

''There's a lot of satisfaction in doing this,'' explains Marcus Tully II, senior vice-president of marketing for Famous-Barr, who has received thousands of letters of appreciation. ''We had a responsibility to the community. . . . We had to give back some of what we take.''

Store officials stress that picking up the tab for these and other OASIS expenses is not a sales gimmick. The company probably does not recoup much of the roughly $130,000 a year it spends to provide OASIS with various services, Ms. Mann says. OASIS is also supported by a grant from the Administration on Aging to the tune of about $150,000 a year for two years. The University of Missouri at St. Louis provides office space.

So far, the expansion to other cities involves only stores of the May Department Stores Company, which is the nationwide parent company for Famous-Barr and other chains. But Ms. Mann hopes to interest other stores as well.

''We want (senior citizens) to be considered an important audience, important consumers, and important resources (to a community).''

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