Get into the groove with dance

Written by Beverley Hadgraft for Australian Seniors.               

If a pharmaceutical company announced it had created a pill that could be effective in reducing dementia, weight gain, improved balance, memory and core strength, and treated arthritis, Parkinson’s and depression, there would be a queue around the block for it. Well guess what? There is such a remedy and, even better, it comes with a side effect of fun. What is this amazing remedy you might ask? 

It’s called dance.                                                        

From ballroom to belly, tango to tap, swing to salsa and lambada to line, dance can offer a range of impressive physical and mental benefits, says Victorian dance teacher and educator Dr Katrina Rank, who works with older Australians. 

“Quality dance programs have the potential to ease pressure on health budgets by providing activity that engages individuals, physically, mentally, socially, intellectually and creatively.”                                                          

A former professional dancer herself, Dr Rank now trains teachers and creates classes and troupes for seniors – even if they’ve never danced before or are too immobile to get out of a chair.

Dancing helps you get your exercise in

Although we all know physical activity is important, dance has many benefits. The most startling of these is the impact on the brain. Internationally-respected gait and cognition expert Dr Joe Verghese studied nearly 500 people over 75 for five years for his Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly research which was published in 2003. Other research has also suggested that dance could provide a positive impact on the brain

Could dance stave off dementia?

The results of Verghese’s study suggested that regular dancing was associated with a lower risk of dementia. The study also noted that reductions in risk were related to the frequency of participation. For example, according to the models used in the study, doing crossword puzzles at least four days a week reduced the risk of dementia by 47% when compared to subjects who did puzzles once a week. While dance is seen as recreational, its clinical value could be overlooked.                                                           

Dr Verghese is among the experts Dr Rank cites in her research and teaching modules for Ausdance Victoria – although it was the need for social connectedness that first sparked her interest. 

“Arthritis in my ankles meant I came to a point where I couldn’t attend a regular dance class and I became miserable and lonely. I wanted to share the energy and camaraderie of doing something creative with other people.”                                                           

Her immediate solution was to train to teach dance to those with Parkinson’s, before forming Fine Lines, a contemporary dance troupe for mature dancers. It was this that made her appreciate the cognitive benefits of the exercise.                                                           

Using improvisation and creativity (rather than memorising specific steps as she had during her ballet career) creates new neural pathways, she explains. “I could feel my brain tingle!” 

And the theory is that the more pathways your brain has, the greater the improvements in concentration, memory and problem solving.                                                         

Dr Rank quotes the work of the late neurologist and Alzheimer’s expert Dr Robert Katzman, who found that free-style social dancing, such as foxtrot, waltz and swing, were also particularly good for the brain. “They require constant, split second, rapid-fire decision making, which is the key to maintaining intelligence because it forces your brain to regularly rewire neural pathways,” he once said.                                                       

Keep it social with dance                                                     

And while doing a dance class online or playing a dance video game can have benefits, Dr Rank suggests the social interactions of dance are also important, not least because they can reduce isolation, depression and anxiety and improve feelings of self-esteem, self-confidence, purpose, and achievement. This may be particularly important for retirees who may have lost their usual network.

If all that isn’t enough, dance can also be great for aerobic fitness, weight management, muscle and bone strength, flexibility, joint health, and endurance. Moving through space in different directions and in different ways improves static and dynamic balance, spatial awareness, coordination, and reaction time.

“Balance reduces after the age of 50,” she says, adding that dancing has been found to reduce falls by 58% as well as improving gait – helping you walk tall.                                                           

So what style is best? It doesn’t matter, Dr Rank says. “The most important thing is that people enjoy the style they are doing because to get the benefits you need to keep doing it and do as much as possible.”                                                          

To that end, she’d like to make opportunities to dance easier. “Go to Europe and there are dances happening regularly in town squares. Previous generations had dance halls and we do have clubs, but once you’re past clubbing, there’s nowhere to do impromptu dancing and so confidence erodes. Our artistic cultures have never been seen as equal to our sporting cultures – clearly that needs to change.” Exercising over 50 is a great way to meet others.                                                           

If you’re thinking of getting back into the groove, don’t forget that it’s important to seek medical advice before starting any new exercise regime.

Case study 1

Writer and journalist Eva Lewicki

Writer and journalist Eva Lewicki, 60, from Sydney had been keen to learn the popular dance style of ceroc for decades, and the chance finally arrived in her 50s.

The first time I saw ceroc, or modern jive, was 30 years ago. I was dying to learn but my husband didn’t like dancing. Twenty years later I was single and when I told a friend I wanted to learn ceroc, she immediately said: “I’ll come with you.”                                                          

"I had no previous dancing experience, so it took a while to feel at ease, but ceroc is easy and three months after starting, I attended a ceroc dance weekend with the aim of never sitting down." 

"I improved so much!"                                                      

The benefits were numerous. I lost two dress sizes and wore size 10 for the first time in years. I felt fitter and happier and really enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment when I danced well with someone. I loved the creativity, and it definitely improved my poor coordination.                                                       

I made great friends of all ages and from all walks of life and, unlike other forms of exercise, I never even thought about giving up because it was so much fun.                                                          

Best of all, I met my partner Michael at ceroc, and we still love to go dancing together. I’d advise anyone to give it a go. You don’t need a partner – although, like me, you might end up with one.

Eva dances with the Ceroc and Modern Jive Dance Co, with venues in Sydney. For other areas, search ‘ceroc’ or ‘modern jive’.

Case study 2

Scientist turned dancer and choreographer Darryl Butler

Scientist turned dancer and choreographer Darryl Butler, 75, from Batchelor, Northern Territory, says dancing is the “total package”.

I started dancing 10 years ago. I was 65 and had wanted to dance for a long time, but a busy life and family made it difficult. That changed when a dance company, Tracks, announced it needed dancers aged between eight and 80 for a new show. I thought, if I don’t do it now, I never will. There aren’t many places to start a dance career at 65.                                                           

Some members of the Grey Panthers [a contemporary dance group for seniors] were there, so afterwards I continued dancing with them. I went on to do choreography development work as well, so now I am a septuagenarian dancer and choreographer.                                                          

I live in Batchelor, which has a population of only 400, but I’ve also started a dance group for over 60s there. Everyone said: “I’ll do classes, but I don’t want to perform.” Now you can’t stop them! The oldest is 79. In the Darwin Grey Panther group, the oldest is 86.                                               

I know there’s a lot of research on the benefits of dance and I’m sure some people dance because it’s healthy, but I think the people who dance for the health benefits alone are rare. It’s a total package. It ticks all the boxes: social, cognitive, creative, physical and emotional.                                                           

I’ve exercised for strength, flexibility and balance but that’s so I can do more dance and get more joy from dance. When we get older, we have a tendency to assume an older identity and to think age is about decline. It’s not. It’s only a decline if you take your reference point from young people, rather than from yourself.                                                          

Dance teaches you to understand your body, what it can do and the possibilities. You can’t build on negatives, you have to find the positives and use them to achieve what you want to.

Darryl dances with the Grey Panthers, with groups in the Northern Territory.                                           

Dance groups for older adults

The golds

A dance and performance group for over 55s in Canberra.


(Mature Artists Dance Experience)

Based in Tasmania, the company focuses on performances that redefine the mature body.

Fine lines

A Victorian community of mature dancers aged up to 80, founded by Dr Katrina Rank.

Ripe dance

(Really Is Possible for Everyone)

Based in Noosa and offers weekly classes for any ability over 60.

Spring for seniors dance theatre class

The monthly workshop at the Sydney Opera House is suitable for over 55s of all mobility levels.                                                          

Also has options for limited mobility options

Dance for Parkinson’s                                                                     

A fun, positive class that uses dance strategies to help manage symptoms, including balance and strength. Some classes are suitable for those with multiple sclerosis, chronic pain and other conditions.                                                                     

Dance health alliance                                                                   

Facilitates a variety of dance programs for older adults with movement-restricting conditions.

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