- Associated Press - Saturday, March 4, 2017

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Ten minutes before the evening aerobics class even begins, the music is blasting and a half dozen women dance and clap in rhythm.

Leader of the pack is 75-year-old Gracie Perkins.

For a decade Perkins has taught this rhythmic aerobics class for seniors at BREC’s North Sherwood Forest Community Park, dancing hard for an hour every Tuesday and Thursday. And she barely breaks a sweat.

“She’s the fountain of youth,” says Brenda Summers, 50, a regular participant. “She makes you want to be better.”

When the class officially starts, the room is full, and Perkins grabs a stack of CDs next to the boom box. The ageless, constantly smiling Perkins wears a pink T-shirt slightly off her shoulder, her short, dark hair highlighted with brassy tones.

“Where y’all want to go?” Perkins asks the room while searching through the music. She puts on Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” and the women know all the moves. They mimic jumping rope, then spin around.

Most of their routines involve a few easy-to-learn steps repeated in all four directions. The moves matter less than the idea of getting moving, Perkins says.

“You’re not concerned about making mistakes,” she says. “We’re concerned about fitness for life. We get vigorous.”

They dance to classic songs from the 1960s and ‘70s and modern pop songs, just taking breaks to swig water, towel sweat out of their eyes and prepare for the next song.

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“I love what I’m doing,” says Mattie McClain, 67, who has done aerobics for 15 years - nine with Perkins. “It keeps you feeling young and living longer. And it keeps you happy.”

Trained as a health and physical education teacher, Perkins teaches them that while working out is about looking good, it is primarily about cardiovascular health and getting the blood flowing.

“It’s all about cardio, from the inside to the outside,” she says.

Born in Baton Rouge, Perkins helped create the Southern University Dancing Dolls, becoming the celebrated troupe’s first director and choreographer. She taught in Kansas City and Seattle but settled back home in Baton Rouge. She’s been teaching aerobics since the workout craze first hit more than 30 years ago.

She has always been energetic and active, says Perkins‘ niece Shari Poydras, 50, who attends the class.

“This is her all the time,” she says. “I don’t think she would be herself without it.”

The members of the class perform their routines at fitness fairs all over the parish and have even shown off their moves at a Southern University football halftime show. Sometimes they take trips together.

“They’re about having fun,” Perkins says. “We love it, and what’s amazing about it is we love each other. This is what we need.”

Later in the class, the women grab small plastic platforms and hoist 2-, 3- and 4-pound weights to step up and down to the Motown hit “Please Mr. Postman.” In most classes the women take 8,000 to 10,000 steps, says Theresa Charles, 64, who wears a pedometer.

The class winds down with stretching and balance exercises, and Perkins incorporates mental drills in which she calls out a time - 12 o’clock or 6:30 - and the class has to move their arms like the hands on a clock face.

But they love to dance, and, not counting the pre-class warm-up, they move for at least an hour.

“We live to dance. We dance to live,” Perkins says. “Whenever we go someplace, that’s our motto, we dance to live. Life is beautiful. Love it. Have fun.”

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Information from: The Advocate, https://theadvocate.com

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