Notes from Youville: Body Language, The Healing Power of Dance

'Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world' -- Voltaire


Dancing has brought us together, at all stages of life; for our most joyous celebrations and landmark experiences. You may not recall every detail about your senior year of high school, but no doubt you remember the words to the songs you danced to at your prom. If the details of your wedding ceremony are a bit blurry, you probably remember the first dance you shared with your spouse.

Dance has provided nearly every culture on earth with its own unique means of celebration and expression. Like language, this ancient physical form of expression puts on a different face from one culture to the next. A seasoned polka dancer would likely run into trouble if asked to perform a tap dance, and the most skilled ballerina might be at a loss if thrown into the midst of a shoulder-shaking Ethiopian folk dance.

In spite of superficial differences, all dance forms link movement and music, physical and cognitive faculties, creating a unique and memorable mind-body experience. Dance has the potential to connect people, to heal and empower–– and it’s certainly not just a fleeting luxury for the young.

Older folks are increasingly taking to the dance floors, learning new dance steps and (forgive the phrase) having a ball. They’re also experiencing the many documented health benefits associated with dance. Research shows that dance has positive effects on mental health, bone mass, Parkinson’s disease, cardiovascular health and overall strength.  

Health Benefits for Seniors

Dance has such wide-ranging benefits for seniors that it’s hard to imagine a healthier pastime. It’s one of the few cardiovascular workouts that enables you to connect physically with music while having an intensely social evening. Dancing also strengthens bones and tones muscles throughout the body, leading to increased overall strength as well as improved balance and coordination. In later life, this improved coordination can be invaluable in preventing falls and osteoporosis.

Dance can reduce your risk for heart disease, the number one killer of Americans today. Just 30 minutes of moderate dancing can burn 150 calories. Long-term benefits include reduced blood pressure, reduced tension and improved circulation.  

Dance/Movement Therapy

In the 1940s, Marian Chace began to focus on the expressive nature of dance as a means of psychological healing. At St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C., she taught a class called “Dance for Communication” to World War II veterans, providing them with a new physical outlet to express their feelings and cope with the trauma of combat. Word spread of the class’s cathartic effectiveness, and more doctors sent their patients to the dance classes. Dance/Movement Therapy was born. In 1966, Marian became the head of the American Dance Therapy Association.        

Dance Therapy has since been used to treat a variety of ailments, psychological and physical, including depression, autism, Parkinson’s Disease, post-traumatic stress and eating disorders.  

Dance and Parkinson’s Disease

Simply placing one foot in front of the other can be difficult for someone with Parkinson’s. Treatment often incorporates physical exercise to facilitate movement and improve coordination. One exercise that has proven especially effective is –– you guessed it –– dance lessons! 

One group of Parkinson’s patients took Tango lessons twice a week, over a period of two-and-a-half months. A control group went through more traditional exercises for the same length of time. The dancers demonstrated significant improvements in balance and walking speed, while the control group showed little progress. Furthermore, the Tango group seems to have had a great time: They became so attached to their lessons that half of the participants continued with their lessons after the study. 

Dance and Alzheimer’s Disease

A study comparing nine different physical exercises found that dance was the only one linked to a decreased chance of developing Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Dr. Joe Verghese, the leader of the study at Yeshiva University in the Bronx, theorized that the social and intellectual aspects of dance might be responsible for its ability to ward off dementia. Dance stimulates the brain through music, socialization and the challenge of memorizing new steps. This combination of mental stimuli might be connected to observed improvements in brain health.

Don’t forget another important benefit of dance: It’s a lot of fun. If it’s been too long since you had the chance to display your dance moves, you’re in luck.  Youville Place is having a Winter Ball this January. This will be a special evening of music, dance, drinks and great company.  Get decked out in your finest evening wear, and get ready to move on the dance floor! It’s not just for fun…it’s good for you!


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