Regena Stevens-Ratchford, a sociologist at Towson University (Towson, Md., U.S.) has examined the meaning of ballroom dancing in the lives of older people.
Published online in The International Journal of Aging and Human Development on June 9, 2016, the qualitative study used data obtained from 20 adults living in the community. The 12 females and eight males ranged in age from 60 to 84.
The new research found that leisure, social interaction and well-being are the among the main reasons men and women dance in their 60s, 70s and 80s. But mostly, they love to dance.
Dance as leisure
Participants in the study had been doing the foxtrot, swing and rumba for at least 10 years. Some had been dancing for 30, 40 and even 65 years.
Stevens-Ratchford found most of the dancers were retired and driven to improve their dancing skills.
The majority were involved in two to six dance activities a week, requiring from seven to 12 hours of their time. Five of the participants took several classes each week, honing their skills in waltz, tango and samba.
The dancers talked about the thrill of learning a new cha-cha pattern, and the time and effort required to learn new skills.
"I am always struggling to reach the next level," one dancer explained. "That is the motivation of it: to do better and better, which makes it meaningful."
She added, "Then when you get it and when you do it well, you feel on top of the world!"
Dancing brings people together, creating a culture of inclusiveness where participants share common interests and meet new friends.
"Mona" explained it this way:
I enjoy the social aspect of ballroom dance, getting to know more people. When we went dancing the other night, I met some new people who really found [that dancing] was fun. We had something in common. . . . These were people I probably would not have met otherwise.
Another dancer derived similar enjoyment from her dancing. "I go out every Wednesday night to dance," Liz said. "I have been doing this since my husband died. . . . In dancing, I do not make acquaintances; I make friends."
In short, for these older adults, dance provided social activities that fostered social connectedness and promoted vibrant living.
Previous studies have shown that dancing promotes both emotional and cognitive well-being. This was also true for this group of dancers.
For instance, "Steve" described the cognitive challenge associated with learning a new routine:
I have a difficult time memorizing a whole routine and keeping it there, but the formation we did last year [included] 80 different steps and we did it. I think I could do it today because we practiced it so much. We memorized it.
For "Nina," dance provided an outlet for everyday stress: "When we are dancing, I do not think about other things that might be a worry. It is an escape."
Other participants talked about the power of dance to enhance feelings of positive well-being. As Mona put it, "The way I feel when I dance, it gives me feelings of self-worth and good health and just enjoyment."
Moreover, the study revealed that even physical challenges such as arthritis failed to deter some dancers. "I dance just because it is so enjoyable," one woman said. "Sometimes when I dance, my husband has to help me off the floor because I am in so much pain, but when I am dancing I do not feel the pain."