For more than 20 years, women of all stripes and sizes and a certain age have been meeting twice a week in Huntington for exercise and fellowship.
It's a toss-up as to which element is the main draw.
"We haven't had anyone fail the course yet," Carol DeVoti says with a laugh. DeVoti, 78, of Huntington, has been attending the Gentle Bends workout for about 12 years and has been one of its leaders for about seven years.
The small but tenacious group, ages 72 to 97, meets two days a week at Old First Presbyterian Church in Huntington, across from Town Hall on Main Street. Gentle Bends is one of the programs housed at the Women's Center of Huntington (womenscenterli.org). New members find the group through recommendations, notices in newspapers or an occasional Women's Center open house. Though the center is headquartered at the church, it is nondenominational and offers workshops, support and short-term counseling.
DeVoti also works three mornings a week at the Harborfields Public Library, so with the Gentle Bends classes on Mondays and Wednesdays, she is out of the house every weekday. "It's good to have something to get up for," she says. "It's a nice group of women. Nobody is judgmental and everybody seems to hit it off. "
DeVoti learned about the group from longtime member Kathie Ochiltree, 97, also of Huntington, with whom she played bridge. The exercise aspect sounded good to DeVoti, so she checked it out, and stayed. "I'm not good at exercising at home, and you need to keep moving," she says.
The women sit in a semicircle as they work on loosening joints, rolling their shoulders, ankles, knees and hips as "Honeycomb" plays in the background. Seamlessly, they transition to "Blueberry Hill," "Standing on the Corner" and "The Yellow Rose of Texas." Ochiltree quips, "The music is vintage, just like us."
As they shift from exercise to exercise, some take a break if they need to catch their breath or rest. "My knee is killing me," says Marian Bluethgen, of East Northport, as she stopped exercising and sat down. At 72, she's the youngster of the group and is easing back into the class after having knee surgery last spring to repair a torn meniscus.
Bluethgen has been gently bending for about nine years. "I was done with baby-sitting for my grandchildren and I was looking for something to join and to do a little exercise," she says. "This appealed to me."
It's about friendships
She likes the exercise, but the friendships she's made are the real impetus for attending. "If it wasn't such a nice group, we wouldn't still keep coming," Bluethgen says. "We get along very well, and there's no pressure. We just try to do a little moving therapy."
Ochiltree agrees. "You have to find your level," she says. "It's not for everyone, but for those who like it, it works."
Mary Agosta, 86, of Huntington, also enjoys the friendships she's developed with fellow benders, and the class gives her an activity two days a week. "It's important to have those scheduled things to do," she explains. "There's quite a lot of variety in the group. People are coming from different places, and it's nice to get to know them."
The exercise program originated at Berea College in Berea, Ky., about two hours southeast of Louisville. It was brought to Long Island by a former group member, and Gentle Bends was the name the women chose for the classes covering a series of low-impact stretching and strength exercises. "They're geared toward older people to make sure you exercise, gently, all parts of your body," Agosta says. "You do what you can do."
Ginnie Backus, 87, of Melville, the group's longest-tenured member, is also an exercise leader. She's been attending the twice-weekly sessions for about 23 years, and has built her leadership skills over the years with training through other Women's Center programs. "It's very important to me, a part of my social life," she says.
Lynne Kinnucan, a Women's Center staff member, says the organization welcomed the exercise group about 10 years ago, when the women asked if there was space for them to hold classes there. "We were happy to accommodate them. They add an extra dimension to the center," she says. "Everybody knows them, even if they don't participate in other groups."
Their numbers vary, with anywhere from six to 12 women attending each class. Several members recall when as many as 25 attended. Once, there was a written exercise guide, but over the years they've memorized the movements. "If you forget something, one of the girls will remind you," DeVoti says. "We've been doing it for so long, everyone remembers."
The exercise is therapeutic
The exercises come in handy at home, too, especially if there's a physical issue. "The minute something happens, if I feel a twinge, I go to the exercises," says Joan Franke, 78, of Northport. She joined the group nine years ago after learning about it at a Women's Center open house. "We went to the first meeting and we fell in love with the ladies," Franke says. "They're there for you all the time. They call, they write little notes."
The women often meet for coffee after class at TK's Galley in Halesite, where the waitresses know what they'll order and have coffee and tea cups ready as they get settled at a table. "They're a great group of women, very friendly," says waitress Holly Brink.
For most, the coffee klatch camaraderie is an integral part of the Gentle Bends routine. "We do our 'therapy' with the coffee," DeVoti says. "We catch up on our lives, families, talk about things."
While the women are supportive of one another during difficult times, it's not all serious stuff, Agosta notes. This morning, they try to remember a detail from a few years ago but come up empty. "Give us an hour, it will come to us," Agosta jokingly tells a visitor.
Newest member Helen Cavalier, 75, of East Northport, joined the group four months ago when she retired, and has become a regular. "I needed to move," she says.
Part of the glue that holds the group together is Ochiltree's positive attitude. Today, Ochiltree, who's been a member for 20 years, asks the group about a greeting she often heard as a child during the holidays when she visited her grandparents' farm in southern Indiana. "People would say 'Christmas gift' as a welcome when they saw each other, like 'Merry Christmas.' Did anyone else ever hear that growing up?" she asks. "Now, I'm going back a long way," she notes.
"Oh, to the beginning of time," cracks DeVoti from across the table, to a ripple of gentle laughter.
Joining Gentle bends
Anyone can join Gentle Bends. The classes are held at the Women's Center of Huntington; coffee with the group at a restaurant after class is optional.
WHERE Old First Presbyterian Church, 125 Main St., Huntington
WHEN Mondays and Wednesdays, except on holiday Mondays and during the Christmas season, 9:15-10:15 a.m.
COST $2 a session
FOR MORE INFORMATION Call 631-549-0485. The center's office hours are 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.