The Answer is: DANCE!
PHOTO: CBG Dance
As people age, they tend to gradually become more sedentary. Over time, and without realizing it, their movement becomes linear—generally only walking—which can increase instability and lead to people being unsteady on their feet, increasing the risk of falls, joint injuries and hip fractures. But when people move in a nonlinear way, such as in a structured dance class, they build physical strength and stability, as well as added confidence in the way they move through their daily lives.
Lynne Belsky, M.D., a former dancer with the Joffrey Ballet and a Highland Park physician, and Lisa Gold, dance instructor and owner of Highland Park’s North Shore School of Dance, started the nonprofit CBG Institute for Dance and Health (CBG Dance) to enrich the health and quality of life for older adults through dance education, performance and ongoing research. Sharing the vision of a community that conquers ageism by encouraging and supporting its senior citizens in their artistic endeavors, they teach ballet-based dance classes to adults 55 and older—aptly titled Time to Dance—in Gold’s studio, located a block from the downtown Highland Park Metra station. Their other class offering, Dance For Joy, is for cancer patients, particularly breast cancer survivors.
Belsky began researching the therapeutic effects of dance in 2012, and explains, “Our aging population has specific health issues that contribute to disability, increase the need for managed care, cause suffering and social isolation, and lead to decline—including balance and resultant falls, chronic conditions caused by inactivity and dementia. Different types of activity may help to ease symptoms or slow the need for care, but studies show that there is one specific activity that addresses all of these issues and is socially engaging and fun—and that activity is dance.”
“In the dance class, we include exercises where students hold on to the barre while standing on one leg to increase stability,” says Gold. Beyond physical strength, dance can also build self-esteem and decrease depression. “With graceful walking exercises, we build confidence in people to move freely without worrying that they are going to fall. It gives them confidence for moving through the world,” she notes.
“Participating in dance heightens feelings of joy and connectedness,” says Belsky. Studies show that structured dance is also medically therapeutic and has direct benefits that include increased stability, muscle strength, improved reaction time, cognitive improvements, tactile and motor skills performance, perceptual abilities and overall wellness.
Belsky’s and Gold’s students include older people that have never danced alongside those with experience. Many of their students have been looking for a place where they could dance and be accepted, due to injury or physical issues, says Belsky, who notes, “Music, movement and social interaction all help to ward off cognitive decline. Dance, which combines all three elements, has shown measurable increase in preventing dementia.”
Research published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience that studied both aging dancers and people with no prior history of dance that began a formal dance program found, “Those who benefitted most were those who had never danced before or who had described themselves as clumsy.”
“Among our own students, those who came in telling us they were klutzes and felt they couldn’t learn to dance are now coming in two or three days each week because they are feeling much better and have seen personal accomplishments and improvements in themselves. As they gain confidence, students move more freely and discover different muscles they haven’t used in a long time, such as the hip and pelvic muscles, which are very important for good posture, stability, balance and preventing falls,” notes Belsky. “Students also report that dance helps them with other activities they may engage in, including yoga and exercise classes, as well as increasing overall muscle tone.”
The social aspects of dance, as well as feelings of accomplishment, are beneficial to decreasing depression and improving social interaction. Belsky reports that many people she sees in her medical practice have worked all of their lives, raised families and therefore put off or repressed their artistic ambitions. When they get older, they finally have the time to explore their creative interests. She explains, “They now have found a group of like-minded people and are finding joy in this new activity.”
“People keep coming back because they enjoy dancing and they enjoy being in the class with others,” says Belsky. “They leave class and say to us, ‘Well, that was fun!’”
As a nonprofit organization, Belsky and Gold aim to subsidize classes so they are accessible to everyone, as well as hire additional instructors. Belsky would also like to expand her research on how specific techniques do or do not help the affects of aging.
Another goal of CBG Dance is to make classes accessible to seniors across the area in senior centers and independent and/or assisted living centers, and become a destination for those residents. Belsky and Gold want students to experience dance in a real dance studio, as opposed to a fitness class where they live.
Gold sums it up, “I’ve always called dance the fountain of youth. It helps people stay young. When they start to dance, people find inside themselves that they’re really not the old person they think they are. The longer they dance, the younger they feel.”