The Joy of Movement: Dancing Boosts Our Health and HappinessSep 30, 2022 ● By Marlaina Donato
Whether it’s salsa, hip-hop, belly dance or ballet, finding our groove has proven to ease depression, support the cardiovascular system and improve overall joint function. By all accounts, dancing gives us a step toward better health, but equally as noteworthy is its potential to bring more fun into our lives. Contrary to popular opinion, dancing is not just for kids, and special ability is not necessary. “You are never too old, and there is no such thing as two left feet, but we can also argue: When you have great instructors teaching you, you can learn anything as a beginner,” says Monique Maldonado, marketing director of the Latin Rhythms Academy of Dance and Performance, in Chicago.
Stepping into a dance studio can help us enrich our lives while sharpening cognitive function. After participating in an eight-month dance program during which they memorized intricate steps of the merengue, salsa and samba, Spanish-speaking, middle-aged and older adults had significant improvement in working memory scores, reported University of Illinois Chicago researchers in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. “Just like working out and puzzles, dancing works out brain paths and keeps them active and healthy,” says Maldonado.
Tango lovers will be pleased to know that the passionate dance style has been shown in a 2017 study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine to lower anxiety and stress levels more effectively than mindfulness meditation.
Mike Hallworth teaches cruise ship passengers, mostly in their 60s and 70s, how to navigate the dance floor. “We teach all the main dance genres, including ballroom and Latin American, salsa and mambo, along with modern jive,” says the Southport, England-based, lifelong dancer who teaches with his wife, Jan. “For those not as agile as they would like to be, I would suggest starting with ballroom, social foxtrot and waltz, then progress to Latin American, cha-cha and rumba.”
At age 75, he partially attributes his basal metabolic rate of 60—common in men 15 years his junior—to his love of dancing, which “can burn up to 385 calories per hour with salsa or 400 calories per hour with swing,” he notes.
Joan Price, a contemporary line dance instructor in Sebastopol, California, also attests to the longevity-promoting perks of moving joyfully. “At 78, line dancing keeps me physically fit, mentally alert and happy to be alive. The older we get, the more we need social activity, physical movement and mental stimulation. You get all three at once with line dancing.”
The form has long outgrown its country-western music roots and now offers something for everyone, including Latin, swing, contemporary pop and Broadway. “Since you dance on your own in a row, line dancing is ideal for singles and for partners of non-dancers. It’s also wonderful for people who want a social activity that doesn’t involve dating or partnering,” says Price. She says that there are thousands of different line dances, ranging from super-simple to extraordinarily complex. “As a beginner, be sure and choose a class that is beginning level,” she says. “Beginning level teaches basic steps, patterns and terminology—and the joy of dance!”
For those looking for a little more heat, Latin dance can accommodate any fitness level. “If you are looking for a fun, new hobby, any style is a fit, but if you are more interested in advancing your salsa skill level, trying mambo and cha-cha can be a nice challenge,” says Maldonado. “Sensual bachata is for those who want a little more spice and advanced body movement.”
Hallworth often sees people approaching dance with uncertainty and apprehension, and he encourages an open mind: “Dancing isn’t for everyone, but if you give it a chance, you will be well rewarded. Most people learning to dance are a friendly bunch and will help newcomers.”
For Maldonado, it is also about shared experience, which she feels is one of the most beautiful aspects of Latin dance: “It’s a great, diverse group of people who can change your outlook on life. Being a part of any dance community can truly be life-changing.”
Marlaina Donato is an author, composer and painter.