Two to Tango
Albany-area resident Jim Cave has his ballroom dancing schedule down to a science.
On Mondays he takes a group lesson at a local dance club; on Tuesdays, another lesson in a private studio; Wednesdays he’s back in class for an Argentine tango lesson; Thursdays he attends a casual dance get-together; and Fridays are for practice at a local gym, all culminating with a Saturday black-tie, formal dance event at one of several venues in the area.
Ask the nearly 70-year-old retired military veteran, “Why?”
“It’s better than walking alone or being a human hamster on a treadmill,” he says with a smile.
Cave is one of thousands of older people across the country who have turned to ballroom dancing, a style of partner dancing that is enjoyed socially and competitively around the world not only for the socialization it offers, but more importantly, the health benefits it provides.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are to do ballroom dancing,” says Cave. “I consider it a way to a place where gentlemen behave like gentlemen and ladies behave like ladies,” he continues. “And while I was very athletic in my younger years, I’d rather do the dancing than a solitary workout. If you do the social dancing a few hours a week, it is a lot of fun and a way to stay active.”
Experts agree that “anything is better than nothing” when it comes to seniors and moving and better health. Thanks to television shows like Dancing With The Stars, The Next Step and So You Think You Can Dance, medical and health experts say that ballroom dancing improves heart health, increases muscular strength, improves core and muscle tone, builds stronger bones and helps coordination.
“If there were three things — no, four things — I would tell older adults about living well, it would be eat nutritious food, make your life safe by making your body and your surroundings safe, exercise and socialize,” says Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez, a New York Department of Aging city commissioner. “Dancing is an excellent form of well-being in several of those categories because it involves socialization, it works on balance, joint health and the heart, it requires focus, and puts you in a better frame of mind, stirring up all those good endorphins,” the 73-year-old notes.
Cortes-Vasquez is not just walking the walk, but talking it too, explaining she just started taking lessons in bomba, a fast-paced dance style with Cuban and African roots.
“And I just love it,” she says.
And while dancing is fun, more and more older adults realize it is a great option for maintaining their health.
“When I was a child, we used to watch The Arthur Murray Party on television and I would imagine (myself) in a beautiful dress, knowing all the steps and sweeping across a ballroom floor,” says 81-year-old Margaret Germaine, who splits her time between her Albany and Florida homes. “Several years ago I had a heart attack and was warned that I better start doing some kind of consistent exercise. There was an adult education class in beginner’s ballroom dancing and I signed up. And I’ve been twirling ever since, and my doctors and my heart are thrilled.”
As ballroom dancing has taken the exercise center stage — thanks also in part to social media exposure — there have been more and more studies on its physical and mental health benefits. The consensus is that between the music, the physical component and the social aspect, ballroom dancing is one of the best choices older adults can make when it comes to getting out and getting moving.
“There are so many benefits,” says Helena Blumen, Ph.D., associate professor of medicine and neurology at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “In our research we have found ballroom dancing, or dancing in general, hits several different aspects of what older people need to be happy,” she says. Blumen notes that studies have found that ballroom dancing music, often a throwback to when many baby boomers were young, also has a positive effect because it stirs good memories.
“We need to socialize, we need to feel we are cognitively challenged, and we need to feel better from our body,” she says. “And it is not necessarily just seniors who benefit from dancing. I took lessons when I was in middle school, and during the pandemic, was teaching my then 6-year-old son how to ballroom dance,” she says. “It cheered us both up.”
If there is any doubt about the popularity of ballroom dancing, The Juilliard School, which teaches ballroom dance to its students, offered its first public ballroom dance workshop in 2023 to non-students.
Mohonk Mountain House resort in New Paltz is hosting its 35th Ballroom Weekend in March 2024. The very popular, professionally taught three-day event is designed for beginner to veteran ballroom dancers. Public adult education programs all over the state offer ballroom dancing as a choice, and at dance studios, classes from the waltz to salsa are readily available.
“The (Ballroom Weekend) program continues to come back year after year because it has such a dedicated following,” says Harrison Letterii, theme programs manager at Mohonk Mountain House. “Dance weekend has a wonderful energy.”
If there is anywhere in the area that oozes the energy that comes along with the kicks, flicks, twirls and sways it is Albany Dancesport Club. Headed up by Louise Giuliano, Dancesport, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in November, has about 40 members who meet once a week to dance, and then take their talent to competitions, guest appearances and special events.
“We’re no spring chickens here,” she jokes, noting there are dancers who are nearing 90 and still actively competing and taking classes.
“My husband and I have been dancing for more than 53 years,” says Giuliano, who, with husband Paul, also owns a private dance studio. “Our first dance was at an officers’ club in Japan, and on our 25th anniversary we decided to take dance lessons together. We’ve been dancing and competing ever since.”
Giuliano says the upside of dancing is that it doesn’t feel like exercise.
“(People) come in and start dancing and the joint pain disappears, probably because they are more focused on the steps and the music,” she says. “We have members who can’t stand jogging or a treadmill — and honestly, that is probably not the best for someone who is older with hip or knee issues,” she added. “Dancing is probably one of the best exercises you can do as a senior, and it’s not just about the physical, but the mental health as well.”
Top photo courtesy Louise Giuliano/Dancesport.