I don’t know but I’ve been told, If you keep on dancin’ you’ll never grow old…
—Steve Miller Band
I’m an addict. I can’t help it. Dance keeps me in shape, challenges my mind, enables me to express myself creatively and connects me to others. Though some telltale gray hairs provide a reality check, I still feel like a kid most of the time. Has dancing kept me young? Probably. Recruiting the faculties of body, mind, self-expression and social interaction all at once, dance has a unique combination of potent anti-aging properties.
That’s all icing on the cake for me. What keeps me hooked is that dance makes me feel more alive. Medical advances increase the average American lifespan, but doing something you feel passionate about makes a longer life worth living. Those who pursue their passions have more energy and vibrancy as they age; they almost seem to glow. So if dancing floats your boat, you’re in luck—because dance is about as close to the legendary fountain of youth as you can get with any one activity.
Sashay Your Way to Longevity
Research is scientifically illustrating what dancers have instinctively known since the first primal drumbeats compelled us to move with rhythm: Dancing turns back the clock both physically and mentally. Associate Professor Barbara Resnick at the University of Maryland School of Nursing linked dance to significant improvements in balance, flexibility, cardio-respiratory endurance and bone density in her 2003 study Elders Urged to ‘Dance to Your Heart’s Content.’ “Although the long-term physical benefits of dance are certainly of value, for many older adults, the immediate psychological benefit of exercise is even more important,” she writes. Social dancing in particular, such as ballroom or line dancing, “can result in increased communication, social engagement and positive feelings”—all of which add up to a more youthful outlook on life.
Ballroom dancing takes center stage for keeping the mind sharp, according to a study by Einstein College of Medicine published in the June 2003 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers found that of all physical activities evaluated (including swimming, bicycling and group exercises), dance was the only one associated with a lower risk of the age-related cognitive decline known as senile dementia. Mental activities such as doing crossword puzzles, reading or playing board games were found to improve brain function in older adults, but dance out-performed them all. The 130 avid ballroom dancers in the study reduced their risk of dementia by an amazing 76%.
You don’t have to dance professionally or do triple pirouettes to enjoy these benefits. Many people mistakenly believe they lack the physical prowess or inherent musicality required for dancing; there is also the false notion that dance is only for the young. But as an African proverb states, “If you can walk, you can dance.” It really is that simple.
Our misguided culture frequently worships youth while marginalizing elders. Inactivity, isolation, frailty and disease are often assumed to be inevitable pitfalls of aging. Thankfully, a new paradigm is emerging, one that Dr. Gene Cohen, Director of the Center for Aging, Health, and Humanities at George Washington University, calls “creative aging.” His research has shown that adults involved in creative arts programs stay healthier and happier longer, and dance is playing a vital role in this arena.
Kairos Dance Theatre, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is partnering with the National Center for Creative Aging to raise awareness about the importance of movement at all stages of life. Research has shown, for example, that children who have difficulty learning to crawl often have trouble learning to read. “If we don’t move, our brains don’t develop properly,” explains Maria Genné, Artistic Director of Kairos’ intergenerational dance company. As we grow into adults, stagnancy’s adverse side effects multiply, and even seem to accelerate aging. Dance, with its infinite layers of energized movement, taps into our inherent desire to shake our booties…and helps undo stagnancy’s negative impact on physical and mental health, even among older people.
Kairos initiated a project in 2002 called Dancing Heart: Vital Elders Moving in Community. They encouraged frail elders at a senior center to dance, at first in chairs, then progressing to more vigorous movements. Participants expressed joy and amazement at being able to re-connect with their bodies through dance. The program was so successful that some individuals began performing with the company. One of the most dramatic examples, Ocie Mae Young, began her dancing career at age 87. “She finished her life having a glorious time dancing and telling her life stories through movement,” Genné recalls.
Kairos is now working with patients in the middle to late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Contrary to popular beliefs, Genné finds that, through the steps and movements of dance, these patients are capable of memorizing and retaining new knowledge. “They are learning the language of dance, and I see cognitive changes happening,” she says. “There’s so much we don’t know, and the arts provide a possibility of learning a lot more.”
The Kairos performances are helping to change attitudes about aging and dance. Elders’ life experiences are valued, and even integrated into their artistic dance creations. “Audiences cry during the performances, seeing the beauty of what community can be,” says Genné.
A Sustaining Way of Life
The intangible anti-aging benefits dance offers may be the most powerful. Dance restored romance to the lives of Charlotte Klein and Sandy Saunders in Brooklyn, New York, at ages 80 and 91 respectively. “We found one another through dancing,” laughs Klein. “We’re really having a wonderful life together, and I put it all on dance. I could have any problem on my mind, but when I hear music and I dance, it just leaves me.”
“It’s very good exercise,” adds Saunders, besides providing both laughter and enjoyment. “The more you laugh, the better you feel, and I always laugh when I’m dancing.”
Even after two heart surgeries and bouts with cancer, Klein keeps coming back to her passion.
“Dance is what keeps me going,” she says. Her granddaughter, Elyse Sparkes, who is also a dancer, recalls Klein’s remarkable recovery. “Literally, the day after her surgery she was doing the hustle down the hospital hallway with her IV in one hand and my hand in her other. That is the image of what dancing can do.” Dance runs in the family. “I don’t really think about it as keeping me young,” ponders 24-year-old Sparkes, “but when I’m not dancing I just don’t function as well.”
Fellow dancer Julie Mulvihill in Raleigh, North Carolina, put herself through college teaching and doing choreography, and then went on to a graduate degree in dance. Dance has kept her feeling energetic and engaged in life. “I think that dancers stay younger longer,” she says. “I am more inclined to want to skip and play than someone my same age of a different profession.”
Still Swingin’ at 92
Lindy hop legend Frankie Manning in New York suggests that partner dances are the most fun and beneficial. “You’re dancing with someone, you’re holding them in your arms,” he muses. “Partner dancing is communication. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lindy hopper who wasn’t smiling.”
One of the founding fathers of lindy hop during Harlem’s 1930s dance renaissance, Manning developed a signature style that included the first aerial moves ever seen on a ballroom dance floor. Recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship in 2000, Manning is renowned for his musicality, his fast footwork and an unwavering vigor year after year. “Dance is a very nice exercise, but I don’t look upon it that way. It’s just something I enjoy doing,” he says.
This spry 92-year-old is still swinging—with more vitality than most twenty-somethings. “I don’t think if I wasn’t dancing that I would live to be this age. The movement keeps you fresh,” Manning says. He jokes about his “trademark,” a birthday tradition of dancing in succession with a different partner for each year of his life. Gearing up to dance with 93 consecutive women in May…now that’s something to live for!
Kick Up Your Heels
You can get your groove on at any age, regardless of body type or physical conditioning. As Kairos Dance Theatre’s work shows, even those confined to chairs can enjoy dancing’s many anti-aging benefits. “It’s something for all people,” says Manning. “If you sit and play cards or watch TV, your bones get stiff. Dance keeps you moving and that’s much more fun.”
“We were all once fluent in the language of dance,” affirms Genné. “We’ve just forgotten.” A good way to remember this dynamic language of dance is by simply finding music you love and allowing yourself to move freely, without inhibition. “Realize there are many ways to dance,” she suggests.
“Let go of what you thought dance was, or how you thought your body should look. Turn the lights off if you want to.” Dance alone, or with a partner or group. “It’s most important to have fun and play. That’s what’s so enlivening about dance, is that it’s also play. As long as we’re playing we’re also growing,” Genné concludes.
Call it playing, growing, or aging…it’s all part of the same process. Roget’s Thesaurus defines “aged” as “brought to full flavor and richness.” Imagine if we viewed aging that way, and created conditions at every life stage to enhance our unique flavors. Like a fine wine, we can grow more complex and fulfilled as we mature, discarding the stereotype of demise and decline.
Staying physically, mentally and socially active while doing what you love makes life richer at any age. Dance, blending all these elements, is a power-packed anti-aging elixir that’s accessible to anyone. But don’t do it for that reason. Dance just because it makes you feel more alive. Come on, you know you want to.