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Developments in healthy and creative aging: Where dance and science meet

Elderly visitors are dancing at a trade fair at the “Seniorentag 2012”
Elderly visitors are dancing at a trade fair at the “Seniorentag 2012”
Photo by Joern Pollex/Getty Images

It was only three decades ago in the 1980's that scientists developed the term "dance science" -- an outgrowth of sport science and sports medicine. Research in fields such as kinesiology, biomechanics, exercise physiology, and psychology have uncovered unique ways in which dance can positively impact the anatomy and physiology of older adults through cognitive and kinesthetic stimulation. In particular, dance has been found to deliver life enhancing benefits relating to the senses, vision, posture, balance, memory, body awareness, and confidence.

The field of dance science is growing in importance as research by experts in medicine and body therapies have joined in discovering how dance therapies and dancing techniques that incorporate an holistic vision of the aging body can bring new life and rejuvenation to older adults.

With the number of U.S. adults aged 65 or older expected to more than double by 2030 to about 71 million, as according to the Centers for Disease Control, and with similar trends in Europe and Asia as well, there is now a growing global interest to promote healthy aging projects, including those integrating dance and exercise into programs.

The 1990's saw the development of new organizations and publications in support of dance science: the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science and the International Journal of Dance Science, Medicine, and Education. In the 21st century, conferences and training programs are emerging throughout the US and Europe on delivery of life enhancing benefits to the growing older adult market; leaders in arts and health, including artists, art therapists, art directors, administrators, educators, and researchers are learning about innovative developments in arts and health to heal and/or rejuvenate communities.

The flow of information is emanating at international conferences and training programs : "Teaching dance for all ages - Older Adults," a four-day training in July 2013 at the Ecole Superieure de Dance de Cannes in France; "Dance and Lifelong Wellbeing Conference," a three-day event, April 2013 at the Royal Academy of Dance headquarters in London; "Beyond the Body: Dance UK Psychology Conference," November 2013 in Birmingham, UK; "Arts and Health: International Association for Dance Medicine and Science," a two-day meeting, November 2013 in Basel, Switzerland; "DANscienCE Festival" at the CSIRO Discovery Center, a six-day event, August 2013 in Australia; "Dance et science en melange seminars," day-long event, May through July 2013 in Paris; and "Hypermobility Symposium," a one-day event, March 2013 at the University of Hertfordshire, UK.

The Global Alliance for Arts and Health is hosting a conference in April of 2014 to present and discuss innovative developments in the use of arts and health to heal communities. This conference April 9-12 in Houston, Texas, entitled Enhancing Lives Through Arts & Health, is designed to provide a forum for hundreds of leaders in arts and health, including artists, creative arts therapists, arts directors, healthcare providers, administrators, educators, and researchers.

The Rudolf Nureyev Foundation Medical website provides access to recent and archival articles from leading dance and health professionals and includes listing of up to date research and conference proceedings.

What does all this mean to the older adult population? Undoubtedly, it is good news! There are clearly new ways of enhancing the quality and autonomy of an extended life. Scientifically based research articles and proceedings in major international dance science conferences all point in one direction: Dancing, whether it be ballroom dancing, country dancing, classical, jazz or contemporary, can enhance life-long well-being, increase longevity, alleviate the problems of disability, prevent Alzheimer's, and enhance physical and emotional health.

Community Centers that service the older adult population are increasingly paying attention to such findings. New York University Department of Dance has a program that offers dance majors enrolled in a pedagogy course the opportunity to teach practicum in community centers that service older adults. Under faculty supervision, student teachers design and conduct dance classes uniquely designed to adapt to adults of all ages and abilities. Some centers choose to learn line dances, while others choose salsa, ballroom or jazz. By allowing the participants to determine the dance forms, the thinking is that they will stay motivated.

Dance sessions begin with a warm-up of gentle aerobic workout designed to increase flexibility, strength and endurance with combinations and variations to stimulate memory. The warm-up prepares the participants for more energetic activity. The program also incorporates some activity that encourage participants to add their own creativity to the movement. The goal is to help participants feel like vital adults, as opposed to being passive participants, through creative use of their mind and body.

Elderly visitors are dancing at a trade fair at the “Seniorentag 2012”
Elderly visitors are dancing at a trade fair at the “Seniorentag 2012” Photo by Joern Pollex/Getty Images

Elderly visitors are dancing at a trade fair at the “Seniorentag 2012”

Elderly visitors are dancing at a trade fair at the “Seniorentag 2012” senior citizens convention on May 3, 2012 in Hamburg, Germany. The three-day long convention caters specifically to the needs of elderly people, who in Germany, as in the rest of Europe, are becoming an increasingly higher portion of the overall population.

Valentine's Day party at the Las Palmas Senior Citizens Center February 13, 2006 in Hollywood, California.
Valentine's Day party at the Las Palmas Senior Citizens Center February 13, 2006 in Hollywood, California. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Valentine's Day party at the Las Palmas Senior Citizens Center February 13, 2006 in Hollywood, California.

June Ikuina dances a Hula as Martha Santana sings the 'Hawaiian Wedding Song' at a Valentine's Day party at the Las Palmas Senior Citizens Center February 13, 2006 in Hollywood, California. The Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks hosted the event for seniors, many of whom spent their lives in and around the Hollywood entertainment industry.

Senior citizens dance at a community on September 6, 2007 in Beijing, China
Senior citizens dance at a community on September 6, 2007 in Beijing, China Photo by China Photos/Getty Images

Senior citizens dance at a community on September 6, 2007 in Beijing, China

According to state media, China is moving towards an older society. China currently has over 140 million elderly citizens, and the figure will keep growing at an annual rate of 3.2 per cent in the next 50 years. The Chinese government has set up a social security network and 50,000 welfare institutions nationwide to provide medical care, exercise and cultural activities for the elderly and to ensure their well-being.

Senior citizens release pressure through dance at the Cultural Palace Square, November 11, 2006
Senior citizens release pressure through dance at the Cultural Palace Square, November 11, 2006 Photo by China Photos/Getty Images

Senior citizens release pressure through dance at the Cultural Palace Square, November 11, 2006

Six hundred Senior citizens release pressure through dance during a collective laugh activity held at the Cultural Palace Square November 11, 2006 in Chongqing Municipality, China. According to state media, China is moving towards an older society which has about 132 million senior citizens, with figures continuing to grow at an annual rate of 3.2 percent in the next 50 years.