Is Dancing the Kale of Exercise?

Research shows that dance offers a wealth of anti–aging benefits. It’s also fun.

By: Marilyn Friedman
NY Times, April 30, 2019

In a packed ballroom, a dapper man in a silver tuxedo swing dances with a young woman to Count Basie’s jazz classic “Shiny Stockings.” A parade of 93 other women patiently wait their turn. The man smiles wide, playfully wiggling his hips at the end of the eight count beat. He’s surprisingly spry for a 94–year–old.

The occasion? A birthday celebration for the Lindy Hop legend Frankie Manning. From the age of 80 until his death at 94 in 2009, he celebrated annually by dancing with as many partners as his age.

“He knew that people loved that such an old guy could dance with so many partners,” said Judy Pritchett, Mr. Manning’s girlfriend of 21 years.

Mr. Manning shimmied and taught dance classes around the world 40 weekends a year until he died. “Dancing is what keeps me young,” he said in a television interview with the ABC affiliate in Seattle in 2007, just before his 93rd birthday. “If I was not dancing, I don’t think I would be living to be this age.”

For other examples of the age–defying properties of dance, look to 93–year–old Dick Van Dyke vigorously tap dancing atop a desk in last December’s “Mary Poppins Returns.” The modern dance icons Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham also danced through their 80s.

Studies show that dance provides multiple cognitive and physical health benefits, suggesting it may be the kale of exercise.

A 2017 German report in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience analyzed brain scans from subjects who were on average 68 years old and engaged in either interval training or social dance. The study found that while both activities increased the size of the hippocampus, a region of the brain critical for learning, memory and equilibrium, only dance improved balance.

These results echo those of a 2008 Journal of Aging and Physical Activity study by Patricia McKinley of McGill University in which seniors participated in a tango dance program. The report showed that long–term tango dancing was associated with better balance and gait in older adults. Since falls are the top cause of injury and death among elderly people, dancing can be a potent tool in extending one’s life.

In a 2003 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers were surprised to discover that dance may help to improve cognitive function, similar to other studies that suggest that solving crossword puzzles may help to keep the mind sharp. The paper examined the relative benefits of both intellectual and physical leisure activities in older adults.

“We broadly divided the activities into those that were cognitively stimulating, such as reading, and those that were physical, like riding a bicycle,” said Dr. Joe Verghese, lead author of the study and Chief of Geriatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. From his clinic at the Bronx-based Montefiore Einstein Center for the Aging Brain, he said in a phone interview that out of 11 different physical activities his team studied, social dance was the only one associated with less dementia risk. He speculated that dance functions like an involved intellectual activity because it’s complex. Unlike walking on a treadmill, dance demands sustained mental effort to master new steps and requires coordination with a partner and the music.

Dr. Verghese cautioned that this was an observational study, not a clinical trial. “It doesn’t prove cause and effect. We can’t say that the dancing prevented the dementia. We can only say that it was associated with reduced risk of developing dementia.”

Deborah Riley, a professional modern dancer and instructor, has seen firsthand how crucial a frequent dance program can be for seniors to fight frailty and memory loss. “The old adage ‘move it or lose it’ is pretty much true,” Ms. Riley said. “If you don’t move your feet and your legs, you will lose your ability to do that.” For 15 years, Ms. Riley has taught dance to adults 50 years and older. She currently teaches in a program called Arts for the Aging and at Georgetown University Hospital. She said that music and movement help older people by triggering positive memories, sometimes transforming withdrawn seniors into talkative, engaged individuals.

It’s worth noting that the mental and physical benefits of dancing aren’t just for the young at heart. “Dancing increases cognitive acuity at all ages. It integrates several brain functions at once – kinesthetic, rational, musical and emotional – further increasing your neural connectivity,” said Richard Powers, a social and historic dance instructor at Stanford University.

Mr. Powers teaches waltzing and foxtrotting to 300 undergraduates, often using the soundtrack of “Crazy Rich Asians” or Bollywood music to reflect their cultural backgrounds. For three decades, he has espoused the numerous health benefits of dance to students, including enhancing one’s abilities to handle stress and adaptability to change. Students often tell him that they feel increased concentration in classes they attend right after social dance.

One of the attention–getting moments from Mr. Manning’s 85th birthday party video is when he flips a redhead in a black and red minidress around his hip and over his shoulder. It’s his signature dance move, the same one he showcased at age 27 in workman’s overalls in the 1941 movie “ Hellzapoppin.”

Norma Miller also danced in the film with the same gravity–defying bravado, dressed as a chef. She and Mr. Manning went on to tour with Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and danced socially together until Mr. Manning’s death.

Ms. Miller, who lives in Florida and sports a sassy ombré pixie cut at 99, mused on the role of dance in her longevity. “Do you know any woman in the world who gets hired to do a job at 99 years old? But I am hired up until my hundredth birthday!”

For the past 20 years, she has traveled the globe speaking at swing dance events including the Herrang Dance Camp in Sweden.

Ms. Miller reflected on the source of her positivity. “Why I survived all this time, I don’t know,” she said. “Whenever there was a difficult crisis, going back to dancing always made me overcome it. Dancing has been the elixir of life, all my life.”

Marilyn Friedman is a writer and co-founder of Writing Pad, a creative writing school in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and online. She is working on a memoir about swing dancing.