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Still Kicking Up Her Heels at Age 93

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Opie Otis is the picture of perfect health. She has no high blood pressure, no diabetes, no aching bones and muscles, except, that is, after an especially tough workout.

"She's a complete wonder," says her daughter-in-law, Carol Otis. What most people wonder is how the 93-year-old does it. Opie Otis teaches seven dance classes a week, she takes care of her seven-bedroom house by herself, she drives herself around town, and up until a few years ago she hung the holiday lights on her home in Kirkwood, Mo.

"My doctor can't get over the fact that I'm so healthy," Otis says. "People are always asking me what my secret is," she says, flashing that beaming smile for which she is known. "I say dance. Staying active."

"I think I've danced forever," says Otis.

At about 8 or 9 years old she'd organize neighborhood chorus lines and put on talent shows for parents.

"We did the Charleston."

As she got older, she took the usual dance classes, such as ballet and tap. But one of her most distinct memories is watching her parents dance in their home. She quickly caught on, and before long she was teaching other kids ballroom dancing.

"It was so exciting to watch (my parents)," says Otis. "Then Daddy would dance with me, or my brother and I would dance. And then we went on to win dance competitions."

She was so good that at prom, the boys would come find her so she could quickly teach them to dance. "They'd say, `Show me how to do this step,' then they'd run off and do it with their girlfriends."

After high school, Otis went to beauty school and for eight years ran her own salon. She continued to teach dance in her spare time, and she even found time to attend an accordion class.

That's where she met her husband, Warren Otis.

"I told him that if we were going to get married, he'd have to learn to dance," she says with a laugh. "And he did, and he really loved it."

The two would take dance classes in the evening. Warren worked at the telephone company during the day and Opie stayed home to raise their three sons.

Around 1950, when the boys were a little older, Warren and Opie started teaching classes at the Kirkwood Presbyterian Church. They taught square dancing, round dancing, folk dancing, Latin dancing and, of course, ballroom dancing.

"We loved it all," says Otis. "And we made lifelong friends doing it."

It became such a passion that they'd go to New York for seminars so they could learn even more. They won dance competitions, and they took their dancers on cruises to entertain. "We were the stars," says Otis.

When Warren died in 1999 at age 92, a lot of the fun of partner dancing ended for Otis. "I didn't have a partner anymore." By the tone in her voice, you could tell she wasn't just talking about someone to tango with.

Today, Otis teaches mostly dance fitness to older adults.

"We don't jump up and down; these are old ladies, in their 50s and 60s and 70s. I can say that because I'm older than all of them."

In a flier, she calls the classes "mind bending as well as body bending workouts to happy, peppy music to get the heart pumping, increase lung capacity, burn off calories and bring down blood pressure."

She calls her workout "the closest thing to an anti-aging pill available." She says she tries to make the workouts tough enough to keep the blood circulating, but she also wants the women to have fun. And it is mostly women, "The men don't last long. It's too tough for them."

During the classes, she makes sure the women get in some cardio workout, but they also stretch to stay limber. "It's an energizer. They get all pepped up and giggly, and you know they are having fun. So many people my age are sitters. But you've got to move."

And she says she doesn't hold back in the classes. "It's pretty strenuous. I make them work."

The first half hour of her classes involves stretches, lunges, kicks and marches to music. The second half is dancing: line dancing, Dixieland strutting, some hip-hop, Latin, merengue and cha-cha.

The great thing about dance, she says, is that it keeps not just her body fit, but her mind fit, too.

"It keeps me mentally alert. I don't use notes when I teach. It's all from memory. It keeps my brain active."

In her classes, she often sticks with tried-and-true moves, but occasionally she'll throw in something new. "A new dance or exercise is a challenge so they don't get too used to doing the same thing. You've got to use your head to get your feet going. That's what I say."

Otis thinks dance is for everyone. "Some may never be dancers, but it's a great way to get moving. Everyone works within their own limitations. Some have a bad back and can't do every move. They do what they can, and that's important."

Otis says she's never had a problem with her weight. "But I've always been active," she says. "It's easy to gain and hard to take off, so I watch it." As for the future, Otis says she plans to "keep on doing what I'm doing."

It's certainly worked so far.



For breakfast, she'll have orange juice, toast and coffee. A typical lunch is maybe an apple. "I'm too busy for lunch." For dinner, she may eat a salad, steak and mashed potatoes. And she doesn't shy away from dessert, though she doesn't eat it every day. "My favorite is lemon pie."

Name: Opal E. "Opie" Otis

Age: 93 Home: Kirkwood, Mo.

Occupation: Dance instructor

What she did: Taught dance for more than 70 years.

Quotable: "My motto is never stop doing what you love."


(c) 2005, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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