Can Dance help us age well? Can Dance help protect us against dementia? What kinds of dance can we do as we get older? Can dance help our spiritual well being? Are we ever too old to dance?

These were some of the questions covered at the Royal Academy of Dance conference on Dance and Lifelong Well Being in late April 2013.

Can Dance help us age well?

People are living longer but their quality of life can’t be guaranteed, for instance if they suffer from chronic illness. Might dance have a part to play in maintaining health and quality of life? ‘Dancing Longevity’ specialist Clare Guss-West believes the answer is yes. She mentioned there is now evidence from neuroscience suggesting that rhythmic movement has a calming effect on the immune system, which effectively calms the rate at which we age. RESEO (The European Network for Opera and Dance Education) will be including this and other evidence of the health benefits of dance on their website from summer 2013.  

Can Dance help protect against dementia?

Fergus Early, founder of the Green Candle Dance Company, referred to intriguing findings reported in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. A 21 year study of 469 people aged 75 + in the US suggested that dance was unique among physical activities in reducing the risk of dementia – possibly by as much as 76%. That was more even than reading, playing games, doing crossword puzzles and other ways of keeping cognitively active.

Fergus also described some of the better known health and fitness benefits of dance – including greater flexibility in tendons and joints, better cardiac functioning, muscle strength and resistance to osteoporosis, as well as relieving muscle and joint pain and improving emotional well being. He contrasted this with the physical and financial costs of inactivity, as measured by the British Heart Foundation for the Department of Health and Sport England

Fit as a Fiddle

Ballroom Dancing, Zumba, Belly Dancing and Bollywood Dancing were some of the options in Age UK’s nationwide ‘Fit as a Fiddle’ project, funded by the Big Lotttery. The aim was to help improve the health and well being of older people and Dance was offered alongside a range of healthy eating and exercise activities.

Jackie Hayhoe, of Age UK, reported that some 350,000 people took part over the six years of the project, as participants or volunteers. Around 25% were male and 75% female. A range of positive health and well being effects have been reported.

Never too old to Dance

This was one of the conclusions from the Royal Academy of Dance’s ‘Dance for Lifelong Wellbeing’ collaborative project with older adults, led by Dr Victoria Watts. Volunteer tutors from the project described working in nursing homes and care homes, where some of those participating were in their 90’s. Here dance was sometimes chair based or frame based, due to frailty or mobility problems – and swaying, tapping toes, smiling, laughing and camaraderie might be the ways the effect of dance was indicated. Choosing the right music, props and even poetry were some of the ways tutors found of encouraging involvement. In day centres participants were more likely to be fit and independent, so more ambitious dance activities could be pursued.

Spiritual Well Being through Dance

‘He who works with his hands is a labourer.

He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.

He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.’

(Francis of Assisi)

Starting from the premise that health is not just an absence of disease, freelance Dance Tutor Pamela Alexander used these words to help explore the potential spiritual significance of dance – where it involves who we are, our meaning, purpose and contribution, our relationship with our self and others. She described this as educating the ‘whole being’ ie more than just coaching or training in technique and considered why dance might be transformative in people’s lives, particularly where a state of total involvement means you become ‘lost’ in the satisfaction of the activity.