What do we mean when we say “movement”? It can mean many things. It can be the actual physical act of changing location or position: a shake of the arm, a quick stutter-step toward a partner, a slight gyration of the hips. It could mean part of a symphony, a piece of music that is contained within the whole, a part of something bigger. Or it could mean an uprising, a group of people with one goal in mind: a gathering, a happening, a revolution.
The first two can flow into each other. You move to the movement, and you are moved. You are transported, in yet another definition, this one as figurative and ephemeral as notes racing across the air. Music, which makes us dance, has the power to transport us, physically and emotionally.
That’s why, more and more, we are recognizing the importance of dance for older adults. Not only is it great exercise, it is good for the mind and the spirit.
That’s why we encourage older adults to find dances in the Bay Area, to take lessons, or to organize their own dances. It is a great way to stay active and to meet new people, and a wonderful outing for you and your friends to participate in together. It’s one of the best activities for senior groups we can think of.
And as more and more seniors find their groove and remember that dancing isn’t only for the young and reckless, we have something else.
We have an actual movement, voices raising together, and feet clapping in rhythm.
The Health Benefits of Dance for Older Adults
There are few things that leave you more exhilarated than dance, maybe the most purely physical of human art forms. Your body takes on a life of its own, whether you’re by yourself, with a partner, or in a group. And with that combination of mental freedom and physical activity comes a huge litany of health benefits.
The Physical Benefits of Dance
For one thing, dance is great for overall cardiovascular health, and many times doesn’t even feel like exercise. Dance can even be beneficial if you are sitting down and many places offer sitting dance classes for older adults. The important thing is that you are moving.
But a stronger cardiovascular system isn’t the only physical benefit. Dance also offers you the chance to maintain or improve balance and strength. Indeed, the sheer physical act of learning steps helps you strengthen and concentrate muscles, shifting weight, and forcing your body to respond. It isn’t always as easy when you are young, and it can become increasingly difficult as you get older, but the challenge makes it great exercise.
But learning dance isn’t, of course, all physical.
Mental Health Benefits of Dance
For most of us, our first dance was some awkward grade school affair, her hand on his shoulder and his tentatively on a hip, and then two nervously clasped hands. You took one step sideways and then another step back. And if it was your first time, even that was hard. You had to tell your brain to tell your body to do simple things. And, for the most part, it became easier.
That’s because the brain also needs exercise. It needs to be worked out. And dancing, where you have to both remember steps and translate that into the mystery of movement, is one of the best workouts your brain can get. That’s why it is increasingly recognized as reducing the chance of dementia.
Aside from the actual dancing, going out to dances is also a great mental workout due to the social aspect. Learning new partners, understanding their needs and limitations, and meshing with their styles makes the brain work. In this, dance is like any kind of socialization. You have to think about what makes people tick, and you have to practice empathy. And social empathy for many people is itself mental exercise. It’s the constant weight-lifting that comes with balancing other personalities.
Having social obligations means setting a schedule and preparing yourself for it, which is also excellent mental exercise.
But it’s more than exercise, of course. It is what can keep us going.
The Social Joys of Dancing
Dancing is just fun, and fun is important to have. It builds bonds between people and builds a community. People laugh and smile, they move with abandon, they remember older dances and other partners with sweet nostalgia. They say dancing is muscle memory and while that’s true, it short-sells the experience. It’s muscle memory born of real memories, which can come flooding back with the pounding of footsteps and the twirl of bodies.
There are hugely important social aspects to dancing, connecting us with our own past, with a collective past (a form of shared memory and mythology), and with the swirl of people around us at any given moment. This is why it has existed in every culture, everywhere around the world.
So don’t think you can’t dance because you are older. In fact, in the Bay Area, there are dance classes for everyone, in every style.
Dance Lessons for Older Adults in the Bay Area
There are nearly as many dance styles as there are people and in a region as diverse and wild and lively as the Bay Area, there are classes for nearly everything. This is just a small sample, but please find whatever makes you and your friends move and groove.
Note: these aren’t all specifically for older adults, and nor do they have to be. People of all ages can take any class if they want and feel able to. Dancing is about your comfort level, not a number. Of course, if you are more comfortable taking classes geared specifically toward older adults, there are many of those in the Bay Area. For that, here’s a more complete list.
- Line dancing. Don’t think San Francisco is a place for country-western? Darlin’, we’re as far west as you can get, and line dancing is huge here. There are classes all over the Bay Area, from beginners to pros. Grab your partner or meet them on the line.
- Swing dancing. Swing never went away. It had a revival, and it is here to stay among aficionados of all ages. It is extremely popular in San Francisco, for everyone from strict competitors to JV jivers. There’s swing every night in the city, so find a place close to you, lace up your boots, and get swinging.
- Hip-hop dancing. Few dance styles have the eclectic energy of hip-hop dancing, which makes it great exercise and a fantastic experience. The many styles of hip-hop reflect the diversity and energy of the scene, from smooth old-school to krumping. So find one that’s right for you, and let the pulse and the rhythm take you. Don’t think this style is just for young people either. Not only has hip-hop dancing been around for 40 years, but its open nature encourages anyone of any age to join.
- Ballroom dancing. The elegance of days gone by is still here, with ballroom dancing in gorgeous venues throughout the region. From the frenzy of the Charleston to the elegance of the waltz, there are many dances that’ll bring you back.
- Tango. The tango combines strictness of form with an undercurrent of sensual freedom and is understandably one of the world’s most popular dances. It is also extremely prevalent in San Francisco, which has a huge amount of senior-specific classes throughout the region.
Start Your Own Club
Of course, you don’t need to travel to a dance hall to dance, and you don’t need someone else to organize your party. You don’t need a theme or all the fancy steps. All you need is the will to do it.
You know what you need for a dance party? Music, people, and a floor. Sure, you can have chips and drinks, and certainly should have water and chairs, but it can be as simple or as complicated as you want.
That’s why we don’t just encourage you to find senior dance parties (like this regular daytime one in Belmont), but to start your own. It can be a recurring thing or a one-off. You can arrange it at your home, a community center, or even a public park. You can have a DJ or an iPod or anything that plays music.
Don’t worry about having the right playlist or the best mix. The important thing is to put on music and let your friends move to it. It is important to find a beat and go with it. You don’t have to be bound by genre or by steps. Be free.
That’s what dancing is all about. It is about movement in space, about letting your body be fully yours: yours to move how you want, to flail how you want, to find your own step to your own drum. And like other movements, in a symphony or in society, it is about being part of something bigger. In this case, the human tradition that gives us the freedom to celebrate who we are and to celebrate the ridiculous happenstance of having a body.
So don’t think that having an older body means you can’t dance or that you shouldn’t. This is what we have, and you should celebrate that your whole life. Maybe dancing makes you feel younger, but that’s only because we think young people are the only ones who should have that wild reckless freedom to move. That’s not true.
Dancing shouldn’t make you feel younger.
It should make you feel like you.
At Institute on Aging, our programs and services help older adults, their families, and caregivers explore aging together, through good times and bad, as an adventure and a journey. Contact us today to learn more.