Silver Fox Trotting

By Diane Schlindwein

May 15, 2009 5 min read

SILVER FOX TROTTING

Keep on dancing for a healthy mind and body

Diane Schlindwein

Creators News Service

When award-winning actress Cloris Leachman was a contestant on the television show "Dancing with the Stars" at age 82, she proved that not only can seniors dance, but also they can do it well.

It makes sense that physical exercise is good for bodies that are growing a little older every day. Dance also reduces stress and increases the serotonin level, which naturally improves mood, said Richard Powers, social dance historian and instructor at Stanford University.

Powers pointed out that a few years ago the New England Journal of Medicine released an eye-opening report from a 21-year study led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City and funded by the National Institute on Aging. The study of seniors 75 and older showed that ballroom dancing at least twice a week resulted in a 76 percent reduction of dementia.

Apparently, moving with the rhythm of music and remembering steps boost brainpower and greatly improve memory skills. "Our brain constantly rewires its neural pathways, as needed," said Powers.

People should do whatever they can to create new neural paths. "One way to do that is to learn something new," he said. "Not just dancing, but anything new. Take a class to challenge your mind. It will stimulate the connectivity of your brain by generating the need for new pathways. Then take a dance class, which can be even better.

"Dancing integrates several brain functions at once, increasing connectivity. Dancing involves kinesthetic, rational, musical and emotional processes," Powers said. He recommended taking the kinds of classes where you must make as many split-second decisions as possible. "That's key to maintaining true intelligence."

"[Dancing] is the best way I can think of to maintain vitality and extend youthfulness," said Teresa Johnson, a teacher at the Santa Barbara Dance Center in Santa Barbara, Calif. in an article for her site, youthful-seniors-advice.com. She should know -- a dancer since 15, she is approaching 62 and still performing.

"The art of dance is an amazing thing," she added. "For some, it is a reason to get out of bed in the morning. For others, it is an escape from ordinary daily life challenges."

When it comes to getting started, all you have to do is enroll in a class -- Johnson recommended partner dancing, especially for seniors. "If you have been considering taking classes for years, or if you danced a long time ago and put it aside, do yourself a favor and find a class or a social dance in your community," she said.

Arthur Murray Franchised Dance Studios' personnel are taught that dance contributes to good posture and body alignment, encourages gentle stretching, increases flexibility and stamina and has benefits for the cardiovascular system, said Joe Howard, assistant manager at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Alexandria, Va.

"I feel like for seniors, dancing fulfills intellectual, physical, social and artistic needs," Howard said. He noted that it seemed to work well for both of the corporation's founders, Arthur and Kathryn Murray, who not only lived, but danced into their 90s.

After people retire and have given up the social life of the workplace, getting into a class is a good way to meet new people, Howard added. "Our students might come for the joys and the experience of learning, but they meet people who know their names and ask how things are going.

"We have different levels of instruction, so as you move up a level, so do the people you've met in class. You continue on with them. We have had some people who have found a love interest, but mostly they are just friends."

Don't worry that you can't learn just because you have never danced before, said Howard. "At Arthur Murray, we have ongoing training for our teachers about different ways to teach. We adapt to different learning styles and personalities for learning," he said.

Think you've got two left feet? No worries, said Howard. "I've been an Arthur Murray dance instructor for 13 years and I have never met anyone -- at any age -- who could not learn how to dance."

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