As my summer dance classes come to an end, I am reflecting on why I dance. It’s certainly not because I’m any good at it! And while dancers generally love to perform in public, as an adult student, I don’t perform in shows. It isn’t even because ballet gives me flexibility. It’s the exact opposite, in fact; ballet demands flexibility rather than contributing to it. Dancers spend a lot of time stretching so they can do the movements (I don’t stretch nearly enough, and it shows in my technique).
For me, dance is hard work. I am not strong or graceful. But the most difficult is the memory work. My summer dance teacher has new variations of every exercise each class. That means an average of ten different patterns of movement for about sixteen bars of music every night, before we move away from the barre and do short routines in the centre. Throughout, I am making my feet go one way while my arms (and sometimes my head) are doing something quite different. That is a lot of exercise for my brain as well as my body, and it is what makes dance so wonderful as I age.
According to a widely-cited 21 year study of people 75 or older published in the New England Journal of Medicine (https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejmoa022252), the only physical activity that appears to provide protection against dementia is dance. The study doesn’t explore what it is about dance that is so effective, but one of my former teachers swears that it is the combination of movement with memory work that helps build new neural pathways and keep our brains young. Every time I reach the end of class, I quietly celebrate the fact that I have fought off cognitive decline for another week, along with osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease. Dance: all by itself, it is the anti-decline-from-aging trifecta.