It's not your regular exercise class. No slamming of weights. No squeaking of shoes. Just a half-lit room at Scottsdale's Granite Reef Senior Center. Twenty seniors are seated in chairs, their arms and torsos tracing fluid arcs to the music of Chinese flutes.
"Circle ..." instructor Caryl Crouch coos, "... and reverse." Tai chi looks too graceful to be effective. But the class members, and their results, say otherwise.
"A couple of years ago, I had a major spinal cord injury," Jill Karuso, 62, explains. "I had to be dragged here the first time." Three semesters of tai chi, she says, have dramatically decreased her pain, helped her balance and her focus.
Edna Junius, 75, agrees: "I had a quintuple bypass not long ago. Three semesters of this have me feeling and moving so much better."
Each of the dedicated class members is a testament to the potential of tai chi - and a fan of Crouch, the 80-year-old instructor who leads them.
"People hear 'tai chi' and think of little men running through the forest or something," Crouch says. "Tai chi really is a discipline. It dates back to 6000 B.C."
Leading the group from her chair at the front, the soft-spoken lady with the green eyes and short gray hair could easily pass for 20 years younger. "Tai chi strengthens you and improves your range of motion. It works your breathing every time you lift your arms."
It's also the latest tool in Crouch's lifelong mission to offer fitness training to the elderly and disadvantaged. A 51-year veteran of the American Red Cross, she got her start teaching lifesaving and water safety at a Chicago YMCA in 1957.
"I started teaching a swim class for special needs kids, and just fell in love with them," she recalls. "I didn't know it was the first class of its kind in the country." The class lasted 20 years, and she took a delegation of students to the very first Special Olympics in Chicago. When her family moved west, Crouch began teaching swim therapy with the Arthritis Foundation.
A breast cancer survivor and mother of four, she discovered tai chi while caring for a cousin in California seven years ago. "I said, 'This is it!' " she recalls, and got certification for teaching arthritis tai chi.
"It's great for seniors. It's challenging, but it never hurts. It works like medicine for the body and it clears the mind. The hour you spend doing tai chi, you're not thinking about your car keys or your groceries. You're thinking about your body."
As her Thursday morning class concludes, her Granite Reef students rise, limber and eager to discuss their progress.
"My balance has improved so much," says Pat Hiel, a 54-year-old with an artificial knee. "And my stamina is better. I feel like I'm getting back fluidity of motion."
"Joan started coming here after her stroke," Crouch says, nodding toward another student. "She'd be trying to get her arms moving. Then they're moving, and then they're moving more," she chuckles. "Pretty soon, she's moving that leg and I'm telling the others, 'Look over here at what Joan is doing.' There are so many rewarding things to this work."
But Crouch must be running. She's due over at The Springs for the other tai chi class she teaches. A few months shy of her 81st birthday, she also teaches a water exercise class. Crouch lives like she teaches, in a kind of sustained motion.
"You have to have a positive attitude," she says. "And tai chi helped me with that, as well. I'm a lot easier-going now. That took my husband by surprise." Does he do tai chi, as well?
"Oh, no." She chuckles. "He still thinks it's little men running through the forest."