It’s sociable and fun, and it’s good for your health and your brain – time to put on your dancing shoes
Dancing is not just for the young,’ says dance teacher Monika Molnar. ‘I teach people of all ages and have plenty of over-50s in my classes. They love it; not only does it improve their fitness, it boosts their brain power, too!’
Monika has been teaching dance for more than 10 years at the Pineapple Studios in London, but all over the country village halls, community centres and studios are opening their doors to more mature people who want to put on their dancing shoes. The surge in popularity has been boosted by TV's Strictly Come Dancing, which has raised awareness of ballroom among all ages but has a special resonance with those who have happy memories of the foxtrot, waltz or tango from their youth.
Although Strictly highlights plenty of dramatic moves and energetic twirls, many of the movements in ballroom dancing are fairly slow and structured, and you don't have to be super-fit to enjoy this or many other forms of dance. Teachers welcome all ages, and there are even seated dance classes for those who have mobility restrictions.
‘I teach Latin jazz and Brazilian samba,’ says Monika. ‘There is no age barrier to learning the techniques, and dance helps with conditions that affect older people, such as osteoporosis. And because you have to learn and remember the steps, it's good exercise for the brain.’
A report compiled by Bupa on the health and wellbeing benefits of dance for older people highlighted a long list of positive effects, including improvements in strength, balance and gait, all of which help reduce the risk of falls. The research showed direct benefits in the treatment of conditions including arthritis, Parkinson's disease and dementia, and even indicated that regular ballroom dancing could reduce the chances of developing dementia by as much as 76 per cent.
Another study, on the effect of low-impact aerobic dance on 53 sedentary older women, found that after 12 weeks the group improved significantly on fitness measures, including cardio-respiratory endurance, strength, body agility, flexibility, body fat and balance.
The big difference between dance and many other forms of exercise is that dance is meant to be fun – it just happens to be good for you, too. As the Bupa report points out, while exercise programmes for older people have a high drop-out rate, dance classes for the same age group don't, because they're enjoyable and sociable. Homeowners at McCarthy & Stone developments enjoy a wide variety of exercise and dance classes, including Zumba and Strictly Come Dancing evenings, which ensure they keep their health and wellbeing on track.
Anna Leatherdale, who teaches dance and works for People Dancing, the community dance foundation for the UK, says, ‘The most important thing is that classes are enjoyable; if people are having fun, they will want to come back.' Anna lives in Devon and runs two dance groups for older people, The Dawlish Dancers and Stepping Out.
Her classes are a combination of dance styles, covering contemporary, ballet, Argentine tango, Lindy hop, musical theatre and Bollywood. The mix keeps the participants on their toes and is not only great fun but brings a host of health benefits. ‘Argentine tango is a walking dance that's fluid and sustained, which helps develop muscle and ankle strength,’ she explains. ‘The Lindy hop elements are aerobic and keep you fit and flexible.’
Anna says it's important to have music that her class members can relate to: ‘We do a lot to Tom Jones.’ But she also avoids pigeonholing people. ‘It's good to stretch people's experience. My Dawlish group would never have experienced Bollywood, but they love it,’ she says. ‘I now get more requests to teach Bollywood than any other style of dance, and it's great for any age group.’
You can even do a Bollywood class sitting down, for those with mobility or strength issues. ‘There are lots of gestures with the arms in Bollywood, but you're in no doubt it's a dance class, even though everyone's seated,’ says Anna.
Ballroom is about coordination and fluidity. It improves flexibility, and the slower, structured styles help increase strength in the ankles, which improves balance. As muscles deteriorate with age, balance is affected, which increases the risk of falls. ‘You shift your weight from side to side, from front to back, as you wouldn't do when walking,’ says dance scientist Dr Emma Redding. ‘This helps with ankle and core stability, and the postural alignment is also important in preventing falls.’
Because it involves a partner, ballroom dancing is extra-beneficial socially, but having to think about someone else on the dance floor is also good for the brain. Neurologists explain that physical activity, listening to the music, remembering dance steps and taking your partner into account, is why ballroom has been linked to reducing the chances of developing dementia. Foxtrot, anyone?
Salsa, a Latin-American-based dance with a rhythm of three steps to every four beats of music, can be danced with a partner or individually. Either way, it's a good workout for the heart because of the continuous movement, and exercises all the major muscles. Solo salsa requires less arm movement, but both forms increase strength and stamina, and help coordination and balance.
Zumba is a fitness-focused dance with Latin-inspired moves usually done to high-energy music. However, Zumba Gold is a low-impact version without the jumps, so perfect for older people. Zumba Gold has easy-to-follow choreography that focuses on a range of motion, coordination, flexibility and muscle conditioning.
Research suggests that eight weeks of regular Zumba sessions is enough to improve aerobic fitness levels and increase overall muscle mass.
Tap, unlike fluid dances such as the waltz, has a changing tempo and beat. Tapping with the shoes is like drum beats, creating the musical rhythm. Following a changing beat is a cognitive challenge, so it’s good exercise for the brain, and as a key element of tap is balance, it also improves posture. And the fun of making that tapping noise just makes you feel more alive.