It takes a long time to become young.
- Pablo Picasso
Photo by Martin McKenzie
For years, researchers have tried to pinpoint factors that permit individuals to function effectively physically and mentally in old age. Recently, studies have suggested serious leisure activities may be particularly effective in providing a sense of purpose and meaning in later life – characteristics of aging well.
In a newly released study, lead researcher Carroll Brown of Western Carolina University (Cullowhee, North Carolina) examined the benefits of serious leisure – specifically, "shag" dancing – for successful aging.
The shag is the official state dance of both North and South Carolina. Couples dance to sounds of beach music – an assorted collection of black gospel, old rhythm and blues, rock and roll and pop music.
For the study, Brown and her colleagues interviewed 25 individuals and six couples at shag dance festivals in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Participants ranged from 60 to 82 years of age.
The study findings come as community organizations across the country reported a spike in dance popularity, among older adults.
The study was reported in the International Journal of Aging & Human Development Vol. 66, (1), 2008.
Serious leisure and aging
Research has shown serious leisure activities, such as barbershop singing or ice skating, require effort, concentration and graded skill development.
In their dancing careers, shaggers advance through three stages of skill development: beginning, establishment and maintenance.
Photo by Martin McKenzie
Beginning: According to the researchers, many participants had difficulty initially learning the dance steps.
"Marie," who is now 64, recalled the challenge, "There were several sets of lessons at first. It was complicated enough and rather frustrating . . . But then, the longer you do it, the more fun it becomes."
Club members invited beginners to join their activities. The clubs offer a weekly meeting place to practice dance skills, take shag lessons and socialize.
Establishment: Once the dancers have learned the basics, they enter the establishment phase. According to the researchers, the versatility of the shag allows participants to choose their own level of achievement.
For example, "Marie" and "Gary" welcomed the opportunity to continue learning. "We’ll keep taking lessons. There’s a lot more to learn," said Gary, 60.
But with the basics down pat, Stan and Margaret Howell decided to become competitive dancers. "You see older people and younger people who are good dancers and they are just so graceful. Once you begin to learn to dance, you dream of doing that kind of dancing sometime in your lifetime," said Stan, 61.
Maintenance: By this stage, most dancers had settled into a routine. The majority shagged once a week. Others shagged several times a week.
"You make a commitment to learn to dance," Marie said. "We pay for lessons and you pay for shoes, those types of things. So yeah, I think it’s pretty serious. I hope I can shag until I have a walker and can’t any more."
By the maintenance stage also, some veteran dancers have extended their involvement to become beach music deejays, dance instructors or dance video producers.
Benefits of shagging
The researchers found shag dancing offered participants a host of opportunities for aging well. Opportunities include friendship, feelings of accomplishment and a powerful sense of group belonging.
Friendship: Social interaction and friendship topped the list of benefits for older participants, the researchers reported.
As "Burl," 64, put it:
There’s no better thing than friendship. Most people might go through life with five friends, and I tell myself that I’m one of the luckiest people in the world. I got to meet people all over the place and hundreds of friends, real friends. If I needed something or something happened, I’d be there for them and they’d be there for me.
"Martha", a single female, added, " I don’t have a regular partner. I go into the clubs on my own as a, you know, single female. But I’m never made to feel anything but the most welcome. So, of course, that makes me feel good"
Sense of accomplishment: According to the researchers, shag dancing also provided both beginners and veterans with feelings of accomplishment. "As we’ve gotten better, I feel a sense of accomplishment," said "Mary," a 60-year-old beginner.
"Murph", a veteran shagger agreed, " There are enough variations with the shag that there is always something new to learn. You can learn something new and different in every dance you dance."
Sense of belonging
Researchers reported that shaggers have a history of involvement with many continuing to dance for 40, 50 and 60 years. Three male participants, for example, had been dancing for 60 years. Not surprisingly, the dancers expressed a deep sense of group belonging. In a nutshell, the network had become family.
As one 67-year-old beach club owner put it: "I’ve been involved in the beach and shag music for 45 years . . . .As long as I’m alive there will be shagging. I just love the music and if that’s all I’m remembered by, then I will be happy man."