There have been many studies in the last few years documenting how beneficial dancing is for both our body and minds.

But did you know that it is one of the, if not the best physical activity for keeping you young well into later years? One of my teachers Anna Halprin turned 100 recently. She was a prolific and pioneering dancer, creating Life Art Therapy with her daughter Daria Halpin in response to a second cancer diagnosis that went into remission without any invasive treatment. I met and studied with her when she was a sprightly 94 year old, having travelled from California to her roots in Israel to teach. She wasn’t using a hearing aid, only donning specs for reading and was totally lucid and present. Her enduring wisdom and strength were palpable.

The pioneering American contemporary dancers Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham both danced into their 80’s, and died at 96 and 90 respectively.

John Lowe, a 90 year-old war veteran is Britain's oldest ballet dancer at aged 90, and he only took up ballet at the age of 79. According to him, ‘Dancing is the most amazing feeling and you come home mentally uplifted after listening to all this brilliant music.’ [1]

Of course it is not only dance that keeps us young. It is well documented that to live a happy and healthy life we have to eat “right”, sleep well, maintain healthy relationships, have a sense of purpose as well as keep physically active. And there are many movement practitioners who live to a ripe old age. Considered one of the greatest martial artists, Grandmaster Lu Zijian lived till 118 years old. About his longevity, Lu stated the following:

‘Move your Qi, nurture your health and cultivate your nature.’ [2]

Tao Porchon-Lynch, the world’s oldest yoga teacher passed away last February at 101. She promoted staying active and keeping a positive mindset as key to her longevity. Tao’s energy came from “the breath of life.”

‘The breath of life is right inside of us,’ she said. ‘To feel the dance of life within you, and know that nothing’s impossible.’ [3]

Which brings us to the fact that we are as old as our mind defines us. I could easily waste my time inspecting all the ways my body has deteriorated from its pristine, glossy, plumped up younger self and mourn its loss.What is the point? What purpose does it serve?

We know we are not meant to compare ourselves to others. And yet we are going to compare ourselves to our younger naiive, foolhardy, impestuous, insecurity ridden selves? Just like a former relationship, when we’re feeling alone and sorry for ourselves we can easily hark back to the “good old times” – in this case that of smooth skin, boundless energy and faster recovery from physical illness, and conveniently gloss over the bad ones.

It is all about perception - whether our glass is half empty or half full. If external circumstances cannot be altered, then it is our internal landscape that has to change - and so it is with aging. As with all good things, we get better with time. After all, vintage clothes, wines and so on can be very expensive - they are recognised for their value. However even if others can see our wiser, more mature selves, we need to see it for ourselves. And by the way, let us pause a moment to congratulate ourselves for having made it this far in life; for all the experiences and situations, both ecstatic and character-building that we have enjoyed, endured, learnt from, negotiated, surfed and dodged.

If you need an activity to lift you out of the doldrums then dancing is unbeatable.

‘Dancing increases cognitive acuity at all ages. It integrates several brain functions at once - kinesthetic, rational, musical and emotional - further increasing your neural connectivity,’ says Richard Powers, a social and historic dance instructor at Stanford University. Teaching social dance for the last three decades he has championed the health benefits of dance to his students, including how it can improve our ability to deal with stress and adapt to change. [4]

We are never too old to try something new. It always fascinates me when people say they are too old to do something. Sure there are some things that are better suited to a younger person to try eg skiing (for beginners at least - I have seen a fair few retired people on the slopes in France, though skiiers from a younger age). Being a woman I will never be quite as physically strong as a man and I gracefully accept help these days, unlike my younger, proud, hot -headed self.

So, if you have never thought of yourself as a dancer, then let me remind you firstly that you do not have to emulate the late Michael Jackson or the French double for Jennifer Beal in the movie ‘Flashdance’. Secondly, of some its scientifically proven benefits:

According to Dr. Kathrin Rehfeld, of the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Germany:

‘I think dancing is a powerful tool to set new challenges for body and mind, especially in older age.’[5]

From the Centre’s research four major benefits are:

  1. Having to remember certain moves results in memory improvement and strengthened nerve communication

  2. By getting the body to try new moves such as spins, turns and quick steps, the brain and inner ear learn to deal with quick changes and sharp movements. This improves coordination and balance.

  3. The accompanying music promotes neural activity and functional connectivity between multiple brain regions, slowing down cognitive decline.

  4. Aside from keeping your body lean and tuned and your brain sharp and focussed, it promotes a positive attitude of carefree happiness.

Unlike Ballroom, Lindy Hop, Jive or other stylised dances, Niio dance is not about having set routines that you have to remember. Rather it offers a supportive structure from which you can explore and expand on your own movement repertoire. It affords the opportunity for creative discovery.

Australian dancer, artist, performer and choreographer Eileen Kramer lived until 105. Famed for her unique and expressive style her simple advice to live a long and happy life was:

Try to do creative work, because if you're dealing with creative work you're doing something new all the time.’ [6]

A fellow dancer and collaborator Sue Healey said of her:

‘It's incredible ... she never has a day when she isn't thinking about her next creative endeavour and that's what keeps her alive and youthful and energetic.’ [7]

Dick Van Dyke who starred in the original Mary Poppins movie reappears in ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ (2018), full of life and energetically tap dancing at 91 years of age. When Van Dyke received the 2013 Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, at the then age of 87, he said to his Hollywood colleagues:

‘Aren't we lucky to have found a line of work that doesn't require growing up? I love that.’[8]

So let's get fit, stay healthy, happy and young with dance!

Ground Zero – GROWING ROOTS AND WINGS piloting this Autumn - Subscribe to be kept informed of launch date, plus FREE mini-course coming soon..




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  • helene su

Updated: Jul 20

I have been trying to write a blog for a few weeks now, but have felt paralysed from the pain, compassion, anger, shock and incredulousness of the news of George Floyd. I am not one for getting into political conversations, but when the very issue of one’s skin colour is a political statement, it is rather difficult to sit on the fence. Absolutely black lives matter, and all lives matter.

My own racial trauma from childhood experience feels very small in comparison to the suffering of Afro-Americans, Indigenous tribes, Ethnic Minorities and all races who have been and still are persecuted, but it affectedly me deeply for many years. For a long time growing up I experienced constant bullying for being Chinese, and I became afraid to enter into new environments for fear of not being accepted. It felt difficult to trust. At some points it made me question my very self-worth.

And I still get it today. Except today it is more insidious and subtle; when I experience the icy hostility of someone I first meet who does not know me and where it makes no sense, yet there is a clear knowing in my body for the reason, which makes my flesh singe. Fortunately it has been rare, but all the more stark when it does appear.

More recently my parents had been afraid to leave their home, not for fear of contracting Covid-19 but rather fearing the racist attitude from passers by. Nevermind that they have lived in the UK for over 50 years and have not been back to China for more than 5, none the less they are Chinese - where the disease “appeared”. When the virus first broke out it was reported in some French press as a second wave of the ‘yellow peril’.

And then there has been the racism experienced by English friends who managed to leave India just before flights stopped during their lockdown. They had already been there for several months but restaurants were refusing to serve them. After all, the virus was prolific in Europe by then.

Yes there is racial trauma in the collective human psyche, conscious or otherwise. Yet if we could simply take a pause before we think, speak and act in any given moment, there is the potential for situations to change form and transform.

When we pause and cultivate awareness this allows for regulation of our nervous system. Our bodies create a biological response that can alter the frequency of our brain waves, and thus our conditioned thoughts. When we take time to pause and reflect we really have time to make changes. Gosh my life could have taken many different trajectories had I have embraced this realisation in my youth, although of course everything that happens is a great lesson!

When the very ground beneath us feels shaky, then our bodies are all that we have. On this earthly level our bodies are our foundation and scaffolding, our home and hearth, our fire of inspiration and action and our refuge. However if we cannot feel comfortable in our own skin, then how can we trust our bodies to help us move forward in the world and be proactive? And we may despise our bodies for other reasons not skin colour related - too fat, too thin, too stiff, too weak..the list is endless.

By finding our inner anchor, the inner compass within our bodies that give us physical and spiritual connection; and also by making peace with our history and our ancestors, perhaps we can find healing and even celebrate our diversity. It has taken the best part of half a century for me to be proud of my roots and my heritage. But loud and proud I am.

#️⃣racialtrauma #️⃣blacklivesmatter #️⃣chinese #️⃣nervoussystem #️⃣connection

Updated: Jul 20

photo by Domenico Gentile Unsplash

How poignant that right now in the midst of the Covid 19 world pandemic it is Mental Health Awareness Week, which highlights more than ever how we have to choose carefully both where we put our focus (in this case I am covertly referring to ‘the media’) and how we interpret it, to maintain not only our mental stability but downright sanity.

We live in a world of science and statistics; figures on how many new casualities there are, fatalities, millions pledged here, millions lost there, how many speculative weeks and months to the new ‘miracle’ vaccine. .

Our world is traditionally dominated by achievement - aims, objectives, grades, sales funnels and GNP. However, it may now be appropriate to find new goals that are not dependant on the world returning quite to its former self. A time to remember that other world that feeds our Souls – the poetic world of dreams, hopes, aspirations and intentions. Perhaps more than ever before we can find solace in our favourite music, movies and artforms and the creative aspects of our lives. When we open to creativity in our lives we have to employ a different set of skills that traditional education systems deprioritise. Being creative means being open, thinking outside the box, challenging and having new perspective.

There is an old Zen saying:

‘In the beginners mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.’

Having a beginners mind means that we approach things with openness, curiosity and interest. There the alluring ingredient of possibility is thrown into the mix

The Taoists believe in ‘direct knowing’ taking precedence over ‘intellectual knowing’. This means that we listen to all of our five senses and more. Our bodies have a receptivity, sensitivity and intelligence that bypasses our high level cognitive functioning. By listening in deeply to the felt sensations of our bodies we can find a depth of truth and beauty in the present moment, be it the sun smiling on us and warming our bodies, or the sound of the birds singing above us. That is not to say that we should rely solely on our heart and guts to direct our lives; there is a very practical aspect to living from logic but we can embrace both intellectual and intuitive knowing to illuminate our paths.

If you have never tried it, keeping a gratitude journal can bring great rewards. Research shows consistently that practicising gratitude makes one more pro social, have better self esteem, release negativity and experience much higher levels of happiness. [1]

We can shift what feels challenging and difficult into opportunity and adventure, and the shifts can be small and incremental. There is always for example, something to feel grateful for with each waking day, whether it is the fact that you had a warm comfortable bed to wake up in, or you are fully abled enough to be able to physically arise from it.

Sometimes when things are simplified, and external distractions stripped away what is really important in your life become crystal clear and the things that no longer serve you will be released. Pain is very often a catalyst for change.

As we pare down and strip back our lives, it also gives us the opportunity to notice our own outdated beliefs and attitudes. As one friend has described of this pandemic, ‘it is a turning point for the human race.’

Our modern world can make us quite inward looking, and now we have a clear choice to see the world with new eyes and with a bigger lens. No longer focussed solely on our personal needs we are effectively losing some of the importance of our personal self, our ego [2]. I have familiarity with that place of ‘depression’ as so many of us have, and it can be incredibly myopic. Sure we need to maintain daily and regular routines to stabilise the unsteady ground beneath our feet, have focus, stay courageous and orientate towards future goals and growth; but we also have to let go and surrender to the great mystery of life. Rather than only seeking immediate answers we need to look to the bigger questions that are out there.

I will conclude this piece with a quote from one of my personal teachers who turns 100 this year, the amazing Anna Halprin one of the great pioneers to officially recognise dance as a healing art:

‘I've always been an artist. But I'd never connected art closely to life experience until I was stricken with cancer in 1972. That was a big shift for me, because I began to ask all kinds of questions: What am I doing? Who am I doing this for? Why am I dancing? What difference does it make anyway?

Up until that time I essentially used my life to create my art; and then, by asking all those various questions ……I began to shift to using art to create my life.

Making that shift required a lot of different questions and searching for new answers’ [3]

If like Halprin we approach this current world climate with artful curiosity,

what then are the real questions we need to be asking?



2 Nb Definition of ‘ego’ not being psychoanalytic theory specific.

3 Halprin, A. (2002). Interview by T Amorok. Video recording, February 4th, Mountain Home Studio, Kentfield, CA.

c/o Schlitz, Vieten, Amorok (2007), Living Deeply, New Harbinger Publ, CA.

#️mentalhealth #️creativity #️depression #️gratitude #️dance

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