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  • Male and female ballroom, standard, sport dance, latin and salsa couple dancers feet and shoes in dance academy school rehearsal room dancing salsa. (GettyImages / Edward Olive)Source: GettyImages / Edward Olive
Exercise is medicine for older people and dancing can offer more benefits than your usual walking or swimming. Research shows that it slows down the ageing process, improves your strength and balance, and it’s good for the brain!
Amy Chien-Yu Wang

2 Apr 2018 - 10:17 AM  UPDATED 22 Aug 2018 - 2:20 PM

At the basement of Brisbane City Hall, a group of elegantly dressed ballroom dancers aged from theirs sixties to nineties are dancing away to old time music.

Sindy Ling tries to memorise the steps while awaiting her turn to dance.

Not having a partner doesn’t stop Sindy from pursuing her favourite pastime.  She dances at least four times a week moving between rock ‘n’ roll to new vogue ballroom dancing.

“I come to dancing, I feel happy, feeling very happy. Yeah, I go to work. Work is very tired. Okay, I go to dancing, very enjoy, like relax.”

According to research by Professor Dafna Merom from Western Sydney University, dancing plays a significant role in almost halving the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.

 It is one of the best forms of exercise for older people with multiple health benefits.

“Because we lose so much of our physical capacity and some of our brain capacity, just the normal ageing, we wish to slow this process, therefore we need to build a regular regiment that will increase our bones, strengthen the core muscles, the upper body and lower body muscles, challenge our balance and our cardio respiratory system.”

While daily activities like gardening, swimming or walking can keep your body moving, it won’t increase your overall physical or brain capacity as much as dancing says Dr Merom.

 With dancing, you need a higher level of coordination between your joints, creatively improvise your moves and memorise the next steps.

 “Why is dancing better than other form of regular activities such as brisk walking, for example? Intuitively, it seems that dance has much to offer just because it is a multidimensional physical activity, it’s socially engaging, it has emotional aspects partly due to the music. But, also, it's a way of communication.”

 Old time ballroom dancing teacher Marie D’Alton has been dancing all her life.

 “I’m alive when I’m dancing, I would die if I couldn't dance.”

 Marie agrees that dancing can activate the brain. Her weekly class involves 22 sequenced dances, each with up to 36 steps before repetition. Some of her students are over ninety and still dancing away.

“You know, you’re having to think now it’s left and right, right, left, and so definitely, it makes the memory keep remembering I’ve gotta think how this one goes.”

Dr Dafna Merom says her research shows that specific dance styles can address certain physical concerns in older people. 

“Women that suffer from osteoporosis, and when they took a square dancing, which involves a lot of jumping and squatting, their bone mass improves in the same manner that women that go to specific exercise to improve bone mass. We know that tango, for example, helped a lot with people who suffer with a Parkinson’s disease.”

Marie D’Alton was able to get back onto the dance floor shortly after her surgeries. She believes it’s to do with stronger leg muscles from many years of dancing.  

“It’s keeping the body moving. I’ve had two hip replacements and as soon as I had the operation, the doctor said to me, the fact that I was dancing, I was able to get up the next day on crutches not even on walking frames.”

Our world may be getting more disconnected with the proliferation of digital devices and social media, but dancer Marie D’Alton believes dancing is the best way to stay connected and feel alive.

“It’s friendship and there’s too little of that now. When they get old, they need company and there’s nothing worse than them sitting in front of a TV all day, watching that silly square box. It’s no good for them. They stagnate. Muscles all get stiff and their mind is not… they’re just absorbing what they’re seeing and it’s not helping them in any way so they have to get up and mix with other people.”

Marie says people should never be worried about being too slow to join a social dance.

“If you don't get up and try, you’re never going to do it, so get up and try and nobody here points a finger and says you’re not doing it right or you’re too slow, or, everybody’s very tolerant because they've all been through it.”