by Anne Marie Abderholden
Research has shown that dancing through your adult years has many benefits and can improve your overall health. I was a professional dancer and I went back to school to become a dance teacher. Dance has been a part of my life since I was six years old. I dance because it brings me joy as well as helps me to maintain a balanced life. I have also always found it fascinating how dance can teach us new ways of how our bodies work and move.
Twelve years ago everything changed. I took a totally different approach to teaching when we found out my husband was diagnosed with brain cancer. During this time, I learned so much about how the brain functions, and this inspired me to research ways I could incorporate this new knowledge into my dancing and teaching. I wanted to use this experience to develop new ways to teach dance and movement to others.
We all take the little things we do in everyday life for granted, and we can’t remember how much work it took for us to learn when we were young. Seeing my husband’s ability to do everyday things diminish during his illness made me just even more motivated to find how our body and brain communicate with each other.
For the past twelve years, I have approached teaching dance to a group of adults through an alternative perspective that has the dancers experience dance from an aspect of feeling versus perfection. This perspective has made a tremendous impact on each of the dancers’ lives. This group of dancers has found dance to be very meditative as we have to spend 90 minutes, twice a week, inside our bodies—finding the places we tend to hold tension—and then working on ways to release the pressure through movement. Finding the small muscles and being able to isolate them in specific movements has made all of us more agile. This kind of dance is a process that is different every time, and helps you stay in the moment. It also doesn’t allow you to force outcomes that your body isn’t ready for.
Just last week, one of my adult students and I had similar experiences. She was skiing out West and fell, and I slipped on an icy hill. In the moment of both of us falling, we were aware that to not get injured, we needed to relax our bodies. If we hadn’t trained our brains to be mindful of being in the present, we could have followed our first instinct, which was to stiffen our body. That could have resulted in an injury. But because we have trained to stay in the moment, though, we were able to stay safe.
Unfortunately, for many people as they age, they are doing less and less active things. Maybe it is because they think they are too old or too clumsy. Most people believe that to dance you have to be young, graceful, and flexible. That could not be farther from the truth and should not be reasons people decide not to partake in dancing. I believe most people are afraid to try something as uncomfortable as dance. We associate dance with what we see on a stage or TV. What we don’t understand is how long it took for the artist to perfect the art form. Most of us knew when we were little that we probably wouldn’t play professional sports, but we are still ok to meet up with friends and play any sport. Why not dance? There are many benefits outside of just physical ability from dancing. Dance is for everyone, no matter your size, ability, or physical impairments. Your body can find ways to work with you. Dancing can help a great deal with improving balance, which is very important as we get older. Many older adults stumble, and having the balance, coordination, and strength to catch yourself and being able to prevent a fall is something that dance can teach you. Dance engages you to be creative and helps you express your emotions without words and instead through movement. Dance helps reduce stress and can be a very meditative practice.
Research has proved that dance can reverse many signs of aging. An article recently published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, looked at how various forms of physical activity affected about 1,000 elderly Japanese women and their risk of becoming physically disabled, as measured by their ability to complete tasks like walking, bathing and dressing. The women were asked about their general health and the types of physical activity they regularly did, and were monitored for signs of disability over eight years. During that time, 130 women met the criteria for disability. The researchers found that physical activity generally helped women remain independent as they aged, but certain types of exercise seemed to have larger effects than others— and dancing led the pack.
The researchers found that women who frequently danced had a 73% lower chance of becoming disabled during the study period, compared to women who did not. None of the other exercises, including calisthenics, walking and yoga, had such a strong association after adjusting for demographic and health factors.
Other studies in Europe have shown that the benefits of dance can help improve memory and even stop or slightly reverse memory loss. Our brain, through the connection of movement, music and remembering sequences, can continuously create new neuropathways. In England, doctors are describing dance as an alternative to pharmaceuticals for heart ailments, brain dysfunction, learning disabilities, depression, PTSD, Alzheimer’s and much more.
Scientists from all over the world are concluding that dancing is the best way to stay fit and lead a balanced and long life.
Anne Marie Brunner-Abderholden is the Artistic Director of Valley Academy for the Arts, Neenah WI. She has an advanced degree in classical ballet from the Music College in Cologne, Germany. She taught in Switzerland, Germany, Madison, and then founded Valley Academy for the arts in 2002.