Dancing for the Health of It
By Lisa Monti, MS, RD
Vol. 9 No. 5 P. 40
The dance floor is proving a good venue for getting fit with a little fancy footwork—even for the senior set.
Maybe you’re the first one to jump out of your seat for the obligatory “Electric Slide” dance at every wedding or holiday party. Or are you the one who stays seated, hiding in a dark corner hoping no one tries to grab you for the “Macarena” or the ubiquitous “Chicken Dance”? Whatever your affinity, who among us hasn’t admired that couple at every function who moves beautifully as a pair? Not only do they look good dancing together, but we envy them because they look like they’re having fun and burning some calories at the same time.
If you were a teenager in the ‘40s or ‘50s, you probably know how to dance with a partner. But it may seem that this skill has been lost on modern generations. Fortunately, this trend is changing, as evidenced by a project in New York City public schools and portrayed in the film Mad Hot Ballroom.
The spark in interest and participation in ballroom dance, especially among the 18 to 49 age cohort, has been attributed by USA Dance, the nation’s official ballroom dance organization, to recent movies and the ABC television show Dancing With the Stars. The grace, fun, and exhilaration portrayed by the dancers are inspiring viewers of all ages to get up and boogie. As if these celebrities were not fit enough, many participants of the hit TV show report bonus results of weight loss, increased levels of fitness, a sense of accomplishment, and a passion for a new pastime.
Dancing meets the definition of aerobic activity by its prolonged, rhythmic nature and use of large muscle groups. Caloric and cardiac output levels of intensity range from low-moderate to intense (three to nine metabolic equivalents), depending on the style of dance. Dance provides similar benefits to other aerobic exercises, which may include the release of endorphins similar to the “runner’s high.” The feel-good body chemicals trigger the exhilaration and euphoria experienced by individuals during moderate to intense aerobic exercise and are implicated for potentially reducing appetite, tension, and pain.1
In addition to its aerobic benefits, dance contributes to overall fitness, including flexibility and core strength. As a weight-bearing activity, dance benefits bone health as well. Professional dancers consider themselves highly trained athletes, and USA Dance has been lobbying the International Olympic Committee to make competitive ballroom dancing an Olympic event.
The multiple benefits of dancing for recreation and in social settings have been recognized and described by the scientific and medical communities. In an article in Amateur Dancers, Tai-Hyung Kwon, PhD, explains that in addition to being a fun social activity, ballroom dancing is an ideal low-impact aerobic workout that can reduce stress, tension, anxiety, and depression. It increases confidence in social situations, and dance training sharpens control, agility, speed, and balance and increases flexibility and stamina.2
A Moving Experience
Numerous scientific studies, as well as personal experiences, have identified the unique ability of music and dancing to move people, figuratively and literally, which is especially beneficial for older adults.
Mind and body benefits are attained from social dancing because dancers must learn and remember complex steps and figures, utilizing thinking and retention skills. Men (or leaders) have to plan what steps to do next and lead the women (or followers). Followers have to adapt to the leaders’ movements, and both partners have to respond to the precise beat of the music.
Dancing May Thwart Dementia
A landmark study reported by The New England Journal of Medicine in June 2003 attracted attention when it showed that dancing reduced the risk of various forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s, vascular, and mixed types.3 Joseph Verghese, MD, assistant professor of neurology at Einstein College of Medicine of New York, led the study, which involved 469 men and women aged 75 or older over a period of 21 years, beginning in 1980. All participants were screened at the start for dementia. Subjects’ lifestyles were assessed for participation in six cognitive activities (reading, writing, crossword puzzles, playing musical instruments, group discussions, playing board games) and 11 physical activities (including numerous sports and dances). During the study period, 124 subjects developed dementia.
The researchers’ results revealed that frequent cognitive activities reduced the risk of dementia, which was no surprise as similar results had been produced in earlier studies. There was a more surprising result that earned attention. Of all the physical activities, dancing was the only activity associated with a significantly reduced risk of dementia. Dancing (three to four times per week) was done by 130 subjects; 83 swam; 26 bicycled; and 19 played games. The frequency and type of activity were important factors. Those who danced four times per week showed a 76% lower incidence of dementia than those who danced only once per week or not at all. The investigators attributed this to the finding that dance is not purely physical; it also requires a lot of mental effort. This shed light on the belief that dancing is a mental exercise as well as a physical one.
Waltzing for the Heart
Dancing the waltz was demonstrated as an effective therapeutic activity for cardiac patients. Romualdo Belardinelli, MD, study author and director of cardiac rehabilitation at Lancisi Heart Institute in Ancona, Italy, presented the results at an American Heart Association meeting in Chicago.4 He studied 110 patients with stable congestive heart failure with a mean age of 59. Forty-four subjects were randomly selected to participate in “waltz training” three times per week for eight weeks. The waltz was selected because it is known internationally, plus the same research team previously found that waltzing helped heart attack patients regain strength. Forty-four subjects performed traditional treadmill and cycle exercises, and another group of 22 served as controls.
Results revealed that both the waltzers and standard cardiac exercise group showed improvements in cardiopulmonary function. However, the waltz group scored better than the standard group on functional and quality-of-life measures as assessed by the Minnesota Heart Failure Living Questionnaire. The waltz group reported slightly more improvement in sleep, mood, the ability to perform hobbies, housework, and sex than the cycling/treadmill group. The study authors explained that dance is effective because it’s fun, done with a partner, and safe, as no one had to withdraw from the waltz program.
Motivation and the Fun Factor
One reason why social dancing is a sustainable exercise is that it’s done to music. In addition to helping keep the rhythm, studies show that music adds to overall enjoyment; encourages more movement, possibly by providing a pleasant distraction; and serves as a motivator for participating in an activity.5 Christopher A. Capuano, PhD, director of the school of psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J., notes that one of the biggest barriers to long-term weight control is lack of adherence to exercise regimens. In a study, he found that walking to music seemed to motivate women. His study found that overweight women who walked to music lost significantly more weight and body fat and adhered better to the weight loss program than women who walked without music.6
As Covert Bailey, PhD, advises in his Fit or Fat books and videos, the best type of exercise is the one you’ll do. Studies suggest that social dancing, because it’s fun, is likely to increase a person’s adherence to the program. Data on exercise adoption, adherence or continuation, and maintenance, as described by Dishman, indicate a dropout rate of 50% within the first six months of initiating a vigorous exercise program.7 Exercise adherence in adults seems more strongly associated with activities that promote enjoyment, competence, and social interaction and less associated with a desire to improve one’s fitness or appearance.8
In a review article on weight control methods by Wadden, Butryn, and Byrne, the authors suggested that lifestyle activity is superior to programmed exercise in facilitating weight loss in obese children and preventing weight regain in obese women. They concluded that “lifestyle activity is an ideal alternative to programmed bouts of traditional exercise for patients who report they hate to exercise.”9
Social dance has great potential as a fitness opportunity for promoting activity adoption (initiation of an exercise program by a previously sedentary person), as well as long-term adherence. In 1998, I conducted a study on adult recreational dancers participating in country-western dancing for my research topic as a graduate student in exercise physiology.10
Results of my investigation indicated that the subjects—61% women, 39% men (n = 36, mean age of 50.7)—engaged in these activities an average of 2.4 days per week, 3.5 hours per session (for a total of 8.4 hours of dancing per week), and had been dancing for an average of 4.6 years. More than one half of subjects (67% women, 43% men) indicated that they failed to adhere to previous exercise regimens. Participants’ motivations and perceived benefits of dancing were also consistent with other studies, indicating that the socialization, music, and stress-relieving aspects of dancing were incentives for those who might not otherwise be physically active, especially women. This study exhibited that social dancing may overcome obstacles for getting active and presents a viable option for lifelong wellness.
Something for Everyone
Most communities and cities in the world have a variety of dance venues. Opportunities to dance can be found in local dance studios, dance clubs, night clubs, community centers, schools, and universities. Most of these settings are smoke-free.
Since most social dances are considered low impact and can be done at one’s own level of intensity and proficiency, recreational dancing is adaptable to individual needs and limitations. There are even studios and organizations that promote and teach ballroom dance for those in wheelchairs. Heather Mills’ appearance on Dancing With the Stars also demonstrates this potential.
Dancing continues to be popular with the senior set. Age groups vary among different dance venues, the determining factors being styles of music, strenuousness of dances, familiarity, and traditions. The club dances (Hustle, swing, Latin) are attractive to a younger age group, ranging from college-aged to middle-aged singles and couples. The ballroom dances can include young dancers, usually in competitive settings. In social dance settings (studios, clubs, cruises, weekend workshops), the average ballroom crowd is aged 40 to 80. My mother, now in her 70s, also an accomplished ballroom and Argentine tango dancer, gives me encouragement. When we attend events together, it’s not unusual to dance with a lively leader in his 80s. One of our favorite dance partners, in his 90s, can still take the younger dancers for a spin.
Life Imitating Art
Surges in certain dance fads and the popularity of social dancing have been greatly helped by Hollywood. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, two movies featuring John Travolta were credited for popularizing certain dance styles. Saturday Night Fever propelled the New York City disco/Hustle scene into mainstream America, followed by Urban Cowboy, which brought Texas-style two-step and country-western dancing into metropolitan night clubs, such as Denim and Diamonds. More recent films continue to inspire, including Shall We Dance, the remake starring Jennifer Lopez and Richard Gere doing standard ballroom dance. Salsa dancing is portrayed in Dance with Me featuring Vanessa Williams, and Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, which is a new take on the classic Dirty Dancing movie starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey.
Swing dancing (also known as the jitterbug and lindy hop) and similar dances such as the Carolina shag experienced resurgence in the ‘90s, especially among the college crowd, due to the popularity of a Gap commercial featuring swing music (“Zoot Suit Riot”) and the movie Swingers starring Vince Vaughn. Swing dancing in its many forms is still going strong in clubs, studios, and schools across the nation.
The popularity of dances done by individuals in a group setting or line configuration has persisted over the centuries—from early American country and English contra dances to the Stroll of the ‘50s, the Bunny Hop and Alley Cat of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the Macarena and Cha Cha Slide of the ‘90s—and are still being done by adults and kids at today’s parties and school dances. Many singles enjoy line dancing because there is no need for a partner. The steps range from simple to complex, and once you learn the steps, you can cut loose and add your own style. Country-western dancing’s popularity peaked in the ‘90s, along with certain country-western songs and music videos. Line dances (the Tush Push, Boot Scootin’ Boogie) and partner dances (Cotton Eyed Joe, Sweetheart Shottische) are kept alive at country-western dance conventions and competitions. Line dances are also done to rhythm and blues music.
Folk dance is also a good option for dancers without regular partners. These include ethnic and traditional dances, which have been performed by successive generations or groups, and may be done in circle, line, square, or partner formations (eg, Israeli folk dance).
Square and round dancing have long enjoyed popularity among many age groups. Square and round dance clubs can be found throughout the United States. Square dance is done to “old time” music, composed of an even number of couples positioned to form squares and figures as the “caller” (often a fiddler) gives cues, and dancers change partners frequently. Round dance is a form in which couples do synchronized, choreographed ballroom dances as a caller “cues” or directs to traditional or contemporary music.
Many dancers have been inspired by Al Pacino’s tango scene in the movie Scent of a Woman. Argentine tango, a slower, more sensual dance, has been popular, especially in metropolitan areas of the United States and abroad, as evidenced by the numbers of Argentine tango shows featured on and off Broadway.
Competing for Inspiration
One does not have to be a professional to pursue dance. But because of the commitment needed, practice time required, and camaraderie among dancers, performing or competing on an amateur level does provide added incentive to get moving. Paula Mendelsohn, an RD in Florida, maintains her motivation to dance by training for competitions and exhibitions with her professional instructor Michael Neil. In Mendelsohn’s private practice in Boca Raton, she advises her patients to try dancing, too.
Helping Clients Get Started on the Right Foot
No prior dance experience is required to enjoy social dancing. The type or style of dance you choose may depend on whether you have a partner or prefer a more formal setting, smoke-free environment, night club, or to dance with a professional teacher, significant other, or stranger.
Dance studios offer group classes in which no partner is needed, and class members take turns dancing with each other. This is one of the more economical ways of learning to dance, with added bonuses of social interaction and networking. A more expensive way to go is private lessons. American-style ballroom is oriented to social dancing while International-style is more competition-oriented.
Many dance parties or socials will offer a free lesson before the event begins. This is also an excellent way for newcomers to get oriented and an inexpensive way to learn new dances and meet new people.
— Lisa Monti, MS, RD, is a dietitian in private practice with Lifestyle Nutrition & Fitness Consulting. She works with individuals, long-term care, assisted living, and the restaurant industry. Monti is accomplished in many styles of dance, including ballroom, ballet, tap, and jazz.
1. McArdle WD, Katch FI, and Katch VL. Exercise Physiology: Energy, Nutrition and Human Performance, 4th edition. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins; 1996.
2. Kwon T. Why ballroom dancing is good for you: mentally and physically. Amateur Dancers. 2004;149:7,15.
3. Verghese J, Lipton RB, Katz MJ, et al. Leisure activities and the risk of dementia in the elderly. N Engl J Med. 2003; 348(25):2508-2516.
4. Waltzing is the way to mend a broken heart! NewsMedicat.net. Available here. Accessed March 5, 2007.
5. Copeland BL, Franks BD. Effects of types and intensities of background music on treadmill endurance. J Sports Med & Phys Fitness. 1991;31(1):100-103.
6. Capuano C. Effect of exercise adherence and treatment outcomes in a study of overweight to moderately obese women. Available here. Accessed January 24, 2007.
7. Dishman RK. Advances in Exercise Adherence. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics; 1994.
8. Cheskin LJ, Donze LF. Appearance vs health as motivators for weight loss. JAMA. 2001;286(17):2160.
9. Wadden TA, Butryn ML, and Byrne KJ. Efficacy of lifestyle modification for long-term weight control. Obes Res. 2004;12Suppl:151S-162S.
10. Monti LC. Recreational dance as a fitness opportunity for adults in western Pennsylvania. Unpublished research paper, Slippery Rock University, Slippery Rock, Pa. 1998.
Dance Opportunities from A to Z
• Aerobic-type fitness classes (eg, cardio-latin, salsaerobics, cardio capoeira [Brazilian martial art-dance], dancercise)
• Argentine tango “milongas”
• Ballroom dance (American or international styles)
• Club/disco dancing
• Country-western line, partner, and couple dancing
• Dance camps, cruises, conventions, competitions, and weekend workshops
• Folk dance (events often held in churches and synagogues and taught by community adult schools)
• Hustle (a nightclub-oriented partner dance done to disco music)
• Latin dance clubs (featuring salsa, cha cha, bachata, and cumbia)
• Line dancing (taught at many senior citizen community centers)
• Rhythm and blues line dancing
• Swing dance clubs
• Zydeco (energetic dancing to Cajun music)
Web sites and Resources
Ballroom dance instruction and events
Country-western dance events
Dance workout DVDs
Round dancing events
Swing, Hustle, salsa, Zydeco, and miscellaneous dance events
Wheelchair/adaptive partner dance lessons and events
Reading up on Dance
“Dancing your Way to Better Health”
“The Health Benefits of Dancing—Including Specific Benefits of Different Dances”