I learned to dance before I could walk. When I was a baby, every auntie in the family took a turn swaying around Grandma’s kitchen with me. The dancing got more complicated as I got older. Square dancing was a required for graduating from elementary school, and best of all, my Great-Grandma taught me to dance the Charleston, legs kicking, arms pumping.
“Don’t tell anyone,” she said. “They think it’s bad for my heart.”
On the contrary, dancing was great for her heart, and even better for her brain! Some kinesthetic memories remain when other memories fade, and dancing together can be a way of reclaiming connections. Great-Grandma Jean had dated a band leader, and she remembered removing her high-heeled slippers and dancing in the sand. She taught me the dance steps, and when she did the Charleston she felt again what it meant to feel truly free. In that moment, age meant nothing.
A 21-year study of 469 people ages 75 and older, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, stated that dancing was the only exercise that actually decreased the risk of dementia. The physical benefits include increased strength, balance, and memory. Even wheelchairs need not be an impediment to enjoyment; a person in a wheelchair can spin and sway.
DANCE AT HOME
If your loved one has a housebound interlude, turn on the music that made him or her most happy in youth. Dancing creates spontaneous magic when the mood needs changing in the house.
You can plan a “dance date” in your house. It helps to have some upbeat tunes, such as the Glenn Miller Band’s “Little Brown Jug” or the Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace.” If you are stuck for tunes, go online and put in the year that your loved one turned 21, or 23, or 25. Give a listen to those tunes and see if they spark some smiles or some memories. You also can go to places where people gather for the sheer fun of music and dance, like the Orchard at Altapass, www.altapassorchard.org, or to contradances such as the weekly ones at Warren Wilson College.
In my family, we created songs and dances to go with virtually every activity. We would sing about everything – eating cereal, watching the rain fall, putting the groceries in the cupboard. Somehow, setting silly songs to music made even the most ordinary activity feel like something worth doing. Soon, the song would make its way to our feet, and we’d be dancing.