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Why Ballroom Dancing is Good for You

Tai- hyung Kwon, Ph. D.
Date Published:
June 1, 2004

This article appeared in Amateur Dancers, May/June, 2004.

Why ballroom dancing is good for you: mentally and physically

By Tai- hyung Kwon, Ph. D.

At a weekly dance in the local senior citizen's center, I was dancing with Jenny when she tripped and fell to the floor, landing softly on her behind and then on her back and pulling me down on top of her. As I helped her up, I asked if she was okay. "I know one thing for sure," Jenny said. "We fell for each other."

This 80-year old retired teacher dances three or four times every week. She is mentally and physically active. She knows dancing keeps her heart pumping. But she didn't know dancing also keeps her brains active.

A recent study at the Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University in Bronx showed that dancing reduced the risk of dementia, a brain disorder that includes Alzheimer's disease affecting 6 to 7 million Americans over the age of 60. The result of the research, led by Dr. Joseph Verghese, assistant professor of neurology, was reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in June 2003 (Vol. 348, pp 2508-16).

The research involved 469 men and women aged 75 or older, and the time span of 21 years that began in 1980. All participants were screened at the start to ensure that they were free of dementia. The researchers studied lifestyle of each participant to see if he or she engaged in some of the 6 cognitive activities (reading, writing, doing crossword puzzles, playing musical instruments, taking part in group discussion, and playing board games) and 11 physical activities (dancing, numerous sports, housework, and babysitting).

They followed the activities of each for an average of 5.1 years. Among the participants were 130 who danced frequently (3 or 4 times a week), 83 who swam frequently, 26 who bicycled frequently, and 19 who played games frequently.

In the period of study, 124 participants developed dementia: 61 Alzheimer's disease, 30 vascular dementia, 25 mixed dementia, and 8 other forms of dementia.

The results revealed that frequent cognitive activities reduced the risk of dementia. There was no big surprise there, for other earlier studies indicated that much. The most surprising result was that, of all the physical activities, dancing was the only activity that reduced the risk of dementia.

The frequency of activities was also an important factor. For example, those who danced 4 times a week showed 76 percent less incidence of dementia than those who did only once a week or not at all. Naturally, the more you dance the greater the benefit you reap-as far as dementia is concerned.

What is so special about ballroom dancing? "Dance is not purely physical in many ways. It also requires a lot of mental effort," says Dr. Verghese. Dancers follow complex steps and figures. You have to think about them and remember them. Men have to think about what steps to do next and lead women. And women have to follow the men, adapting to their movement and to the precise beat of the music. So, dancing keeps your feet and brains on the ball. Dancers do not just move on reflex. Dancing is a cognitive activity. It requires concentration and thus keeps your brains working harder and longer.

You cannot wear your brains out, scientists say. The more you use them the sharper they get. They are not like kitchen knives that get dull with use. I used to tell my students, "If you struggle to solve a physics problem, that is when your neurons multiply and grow." So if you learn a new step or figure, and struggle to remember it, that will keep your brains stimulated and working longer.

If you don't use your brain, you will lose it. For example, if you sit in front of a TV all day, it will not help. A few years ago Dr. Robert Friedland reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that people who watch an excessive amount of TV in old age ran a greater risk of Alzheimer's disease. Watching TV or slumbering in front of it does not take much brainwork.

This does not mean physical part of the dancing is unimportant. Maintaining physical activities becomes all the more important, as you get older.

Recent studies showed that physical and emotional benefits of dancing are countless. It is no secret that moderate exercise and sensible eating habits are the key to keeping you trim and fit. Besides being a fun social activity, dancing is also an ideal, low impact exercise and also a mild aerobic workout. It can reduce stress, tension, anxiety, and even depression. It increases your confidence in social and business situations, and sharpens your control, agility, speed, and balance. It also increases your flexibility and stamina, strengthens your bones and cardiovascular system, and helps you burn those excess calories.

Some studies indicated that a half hour of sustained dancing can burn as many as 200 to 400 calories. Twenty minutes of dancing can provide as much exercise as 20 minutes of swimming or biking. If you are not sure, try 20 minutes of jitterbug, samba, polka, quickstep or Viennese waltz.

The International Olympic Committee has recently recognized ballroom dancing as DanceSport, an athletic competitive sport. You may have noticed how athletic ballroom dance competitors look. "Ballroom dancing is a rigorous activity that uses large muscle groups," says Jackie Tally who teaches ballroom dancing at Samford University. "It's similar to ice skating, and no one would question the athletic ability of an ice skater. A ballroom dancer might be in better shape than a figure skater. A dancer does not get that free glide over the ice; he has to work every step of the way." Being a low impact activity, dancing is accessible to people of any age or fitness level-with more emphasis on having fun and less emphasis on going for the burn.

Do you remember how fit and trim Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Cyd Charisse looked in those movie musicals? Did you know that Fred Astaire was 88 when he died in 1987, Gene Kelly was 84 when he passed away in 1996, and Cyd Charisse at 83 is still slim and beautiful?