"Alright, I worked in science all my life, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t change and become a dancer," he explained.
Dr. Jonathan Skinner, an anthropologist at Queen’s University Belfast in the United Kingdom, has examined the meaning of social dance in the lives of older people.
Skinner interviewed older dancers, visitors and staff at three different locations:
- Blackpool, England
- Belfast, Northern Ireland, and
- Sacramento, California, U.S.A.
According to the study, physical and mental well-being are among the main reasons men and women dance into their 70s, 80s and 90s. But mostly, they love to dance.
The findings appeared online in Anthropology & Aging Quarterly (34, Vol. 1, 2013).
Dance as leisure
Dancers have been coming to the Blackpool Tower Ballroom in Blackpool, since 1894.
Throughout the day, locals and tourists move to a live band or the world-renowned Wurlitzer organ in the large Victorian ballroom, and take tea and cakes.
Skinner found most of the older dancers were retired and driven to improve their dancing skills.
One couple even used their retirement money to buy a flat in the vicinity, so they could enjoy dancing.
Another traveled from London once a month for a weekend of dancing.
"It’s one of those social things, dancing," one man said. "It brings people together and they start talking."
Some had been coming to the ballroom for 50 years.
The manager pointed to one of his favourite couples: a gentleman of 96 and his 87-year-old wife. Off the dance floor, the man walks with a cane. "But when he’s on that floor you would never believe that he’s a gentleman that has to walk with a stick," the manager said
Reminiscence through dance
Skinner studied social dancing in a wide range of settings around Northern Ireland including the "reminiscence through dance" program.
This community development program features social ballroom dancing in community and parish halls across Northern Ireland. The program, funded through a Help the Aged grant, is staffed by older adults.
Social events with a hired DJ typically draw 30 to 40 dancers. Events with a live band and featured artists attract over 300 dancers.
At one event, the organizers played the band music of Victor Silvester and passed a microphone around the room for the participants to describe what they remembered from their dancing youth and from the music. Those able to dance took to the floor, and others clapped and tapped their feet as they sat and watched.
Seventy-year-old Sarah from Bangor was just getting back into dance, four years after her husband’s death. "It keeps your body in good repair," she said.
"Dancers come away saying, ‘We felt alive. We felt young again’," added the facilitator, Ms. Gallagher.
The author also noted feelings of nostalgia among the dancers, as they were transported back to the 1960s, when they danced to traveling Irish showbands in the countryside.
The city of Sacramento is known for its love of dance. Many of city’s dance studios go back to the 1930s.
Dance4Life is held bi-weekly in the Ballroom of Sacramento, the city’s largest studio.
The seniors 55 plus program is offered on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. It attracts between 30 and 80 people, ranging in age from 55 to 95. The numbers swell to more than 100 on the weekends, when the studio is open to all ages.
The popular program features three components:
- warm up session ( 30 minutes of dance music)
- ballroom lesson (30 minutes), and
- two hours of non-stop ballroom dancing.
"There is nothing in the world like it to me," said Bill, a retired scientist. "It’s amazing! Really great. I come here at 7 o’clock. I leave at 10 or 11."
Bill’s friend Penny said dance helped her ease into retirement. "It’s good for your heart and your lungs and your muscles," she remarked. "I don’t know of anything that it doesn’t help, even your outlook on life because you see people and see how other people are."
Meanwhile, 60-year-old Jessica traded in her job as a computer planner to become a dance instructor. "My husband and I started dancing in 2000, and we became really addicted to it. I love it," she said. "I absolutely love it."
Frankie goes twice a week to get rid of his arthritis pain. "I’ve got arthritis, but when I am dancing, there’s no arthritis pain. It goes away completely," said the 88-year-old retired racehorse jockey.
Andy, coordinator of the Dance4Life program, pointed out ballroom dancing is especially good at helping offset Alzheimer’s disease:
It helps with Alzheimer’s disease because it makes you think, especially for the men . . . [they] have to lead the lady, and, at the same time, [they] have to basically dance in two directions. [They] have to dance in the present and the future, and that keeps [the] mind going and it forces [one] to think.
Dipping and turning
Dance leads to vibrant living for people over 50. As the author wrote, "Renewal can be seen on and around the dance floor in Blackpool, around Belfast and across Sacramento."