For a week each spring there's dancing in the streets of Harvard Square as Dance for World Community, a project presented by José Mateo Ballet Theatre, demonstrates how people of all ages and abilities — from nimble preteens to people who use wheelchairs — can express themselves through dance. At almost every performance, spectators and passersby find themselves joining in.
Dancing is a universal human experience. We dance to express joy, celebrate life events, and enact religious and cultural rituals. Dance also has physical and cognitive benefits that may exceed those of other forms of exercise.
What dance does for your health
The evidence for the health benefits of exercise is indisputable. Physiologic studies have demonstrated that regular activity builds muscle and bone, reduces fat, increases aerobic capacity, lowers blood pressure, and improves the ratio of "good" to "bad" cholesterol. Dance has been shown to have all the benefits of other forms of exercise.
Moreover, by incorporating music, dance may have benefits beyond those of exercise alone. Music stimulates the brain's reward centers, while dance activates its sensory and motor circuits. Dancing has improved balance, gait, and quality of life in people with Parkinson's disease and related movement disorders. And several — but not all — studies have indicated that mastering dance movements and patterns yields greater improvements in memory and problem-solving than walking does.
Dr. Lauren Elson is a former professional dancer who specializes in sports and rehabilitation medicine at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Network. "Dancing is accessible to everybody. People who can't stand can use the rest of their body while seated, people who have lost movement in their arms can dance with their torso and legs. It's a way to connect to your own body, to music, and to other people. It just depends on whatever your goals are. But we know that there are so many benefits of dancing — cognitive, physical, and social — that it merits consideration by everybody."
How to get started
If you've ever danced — and who hasn't? — you know how much fun it can be. Even if your rhumba is a little rusty or your time step has slowed, it may be easier than you anticipate to get back in the swing. Yet, if you're not quite ready to jump on the dance floor at the next wedding or class reunion, there are ways you can enjoy dancing, even if you're shy or feel you have two left feet.
- Take a class. Many "Y"s and senior centers offer some type of group instruction for people of all levels of expertise. You're most likely to find lessons in tai chi, a meditative exercise that is often performed to relaxing music, and Zumba, an aerobic workout that combines steps and moves from a variety of traditional dances — often to Latin music. Learning new types of ballroom dance can also be fun and challenging. If you don't have a partner, there is a world of folk and line dances that don't require a pairing with another person. Many dance studios and square-dance and contra-dance groups create a friendly environment for people by having all classes involve rotations, where you switch partners and dance with someone new each time. You might also consider taking up (or resuming) tap, which can build bones, or ballet, to strengthen core muscles and improve balance.
- Dance at home. The Internet has a wide variety of dance instruction videos, such as the popular "Dance for Dummies," that demonstrate the steps in slow motion and allow you to proceed at your own pace. Your public library may also stock instructional dance videos that you can borrow. All you need is comfortable clothing, a pair of good sneakers, and enough space to move freely.
"In any instance you're getting the benefit of connecting to the music, so you're involving a part of the brain that isn't necessarily being tapped when you're doing something like walking that is more rote," Dr. Elson says.
If you need further inspiration, watch a video of the 2015 Dance for World Community Festival.