Rewards of Dancing as You Age
Dancing regularly can help revitalize your mind and your body
A few months ago, our friend Carlos posted a note about his birthday on Facebook: “Seventy-one and ready for fun,” was his jubilant message.
A few weeks later, our friend Pam also posted on Facebook: “This is what 71 looks like!” She illustrated her post with two photos. The first one depicted a gray-haired, jeans-clad woman with a broad smile, seated on a wooden bench, her hands cradling a neutral-colored vase on her potter’s wheel. The second photo displayed the finished product — a glazed brown vase incised with darker-brown figures of birds in flight.
The subtext of both posts seemed to be: “You thought 71 was old, but I am not old.”
What I'm Doing Differently at 71
These posts made me stop and think, because I, too, am 71. They made me wonder about what, if anything, I am doing differently, now that I’ve passed the seven-decade benchmark. It’s not that I’ve totally stopped doing the things that defined my life for the last several decades. My writing and editing career continues, albeit on a less frenetic level; the swimming pool at the gym has always played a role in my life, and now other facilities at the gym have also become part of my routine there.
But what really stands out as I think about being 71 is a relatively new activity in my life: Dancing. It’s a pastime that most of us don’t associate all that much with aging.
It all started in LaCrosse, Wisc., in August of last year. My partner, Riccardo, is a good dancer who loves salsa and rock and roll (but says “I will dance to anything with a beat”). For more than 20 years, he had been trying to cajole me onto the dance floor. Despite, or maybe because of, social dancing lessons I endured in junior and senior high school, I always felt I was a terrible dancer. As for rock and roll, I spent the late '60s and early '70s as a serious reporter on a national newspaper, going to work every day in stockings and high heels, finding little time to partake of the music tsunami that I realized, in retrospect, was sweeping the country.
So when we stopped in LaCrosse that night before going on to spend a month in my hometown of Minneapolis, Minn., last year, Riccardo pretty much had to drag me into the grungy local bar with an ear-splitting band and an empty dance floor. By the time we left a couple of hours later, a much younger local was impressed enough to say “you guys really cut some rug. I can tell you were really there in the '60s.”
The Many Dividends of Dancing
Although I did not realize it at the time, that night may have been my first inkling that there could be an upside to this business of seniors dancing in public. Ever since, it has become increasingly evident to me that, in addition to providing physical exercise, dancing can offer other dividends including inter-generational, cultural and geographical connections.
The live music/dance venues in Minneapolis got started and ended too late for us. But when we got home, we were returning to a small town with a lot of bands and local musicians, to say nothing of a vintage opera house-turned-concert venue, with a small dance floor, right down the street from us.
Almost every weekend now we can be found on a dance floor somewhere. I won’t say I am totally over my hesitation, but I’ve realized that there’s no shame in not knowing the latest formal steps, because everyone pretty much creates their own moves in response to the rock, bluegrass, blues and related permutations of music that are popular here.
Along with the revelation that you can do almost any step you want, has come a rewarding sense of just plain good vibes — an amazing sense of support that for me, anyway, has helped overcome my fear of making a fool of myself in public at my advanced age.
Gaining Notoriety on the Dance Floor
In fact, it seems that mainly because of our respective ages of 71 and 77, Riccardo and I have gained a certain notoriety for our willingness to join the usually much-more-youthful crowd on the dance floors of various venues in our small town, about a 90-minute drive from Washington, D.C.
One night a few months ago, as we arrived at the Shepherdstown (W. Va.) Opera House ,a young man I did not recognize called out to us: “Are you going to dance up a storm tonight?” Another night, as the band was packing up and we were leaving, another young man, this one with a familiar face, said, “You guys are the best, oldest dancers…”
One night at the opera house ,an out-of-town band opened to a small audience and an empty dance floor. As usual, Riccardo sashayed right out onto it and I followed suit. The musicians were delighted. The band leader thanked us for “the good energy you are putting out” and exhorted others to join us. Soon there were more people dancing than sitting.
Other nights, especially when a hugely popular local band called The Woodshedders performs, the dance floor is so crowded you can hardly move. On those occasions, we inevitably find ourselves surrounded both by younger friends and by what I might call “dancing acquaintances.” When they see us on the dance floor, they sashay up to hug us or to shimmy around us, their arms raised high over their heads, or to gently pull us into a circle dance.
Another revelation has been that dancing can help you cross cultural and geographical boundaries as well as those of age. On vacation in Montreal, we spent a Friday evening at a “social dance” at a swing dancing studio, where we joined a diverse group of amateurs and professionals, probably ranging in age from 18 to 85, dancing to a DJ’s menu of 1930’s and '40s classics.
The Health Benefits of Dancing
Most of us probably know instinctively that dancing is good exercise, and exercise is a good thing. Surfing the Internet I can see that there is in fact quite a bit of interest in dancing for seniors; and its benefits for both mental and physical health are touted by a well-credentialed group of experts. Dancing appears often in The National Institute of Aging’s lists of activities that can help you stave off or combat osteoporosis, arthritis and even Alzheimer’s. The Institute has actually funded a study to gauge the effects of a regular schedule of dancing (“ballroom, swing, waltz, folk, and English country”) on both seniors’ physical abilities and their brain structure and function.
For Dr. William Hall, a professor of medicine and geriatrician at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, the ideal dance for the older crowd is the tango. “If I ran the universe,” he says in a video posted on the university website, “I would tell every old person…to learn the tango. The tango has everything at once…music, romance, you are required to have agility, flexibility, strength, and you have to appreciate music. It’s the perfect exercise.”
Because Riccardo and I spend a lot of time in Argentina, we started taking tango classes. But after realizing how difficult it is to learn, we went AWOL after a few sessions. On the other hand, in Argentina, we also learned the lesson that pure form is not always the path to the rewards of dancing.
A case in point occurred on a balmy summer evening in Mendoza, Argentina about a year ago, when we attended a Caribbean dance fest sponsored by the recreation department. Arriving early, we were one of the first couples (apparently the only non-locals) on the outdoor dance floor, and we stuck it out — while admiring the form of our fellow dancers who had impressively mastered the mambo, the cha-cha, and other Caribbean rhythms — until the very end.
As the master of ceremonies approached the stage to say farewell to the audience, we started to leave, making our way across the lawn. Suddenly we realized a young woman was running and calling after us. “Come back, come back,” she said. “You’ve won a prize!”
Somewhat dazed, we followed her back to the podium, where we were asked to step up to receive a bottle of Mendoza wine as recognition of —not our dancing style — but our endurance. The award was for spending more time on the dance floor than any other couple.