The Benefits of Dancing : the best way to stay Young, Agile and Brain Sharp

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

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!

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