Just the other week I was sitting at a bus stop in central Marbella when a fellow traveller asked me if she was at the right stop for the bus to “Paradise”. For a moment I was stumped and then I got it; “Ah, you mean El Paraiso?” I asked her. Yes, that was where she wanted to go and as luck would have it that was where I was headed as well. We got talking and the conversation quickly turned to the topic of occupation. I was somewhat surprised when she told me she taught line dancing classes and Zumba Gold to the over 50s in Chelmsford. Naturally, I had images of thumbs tucked in belts, cowboy boots, cowboy hats, gents in bolo ties and non-stop country music. Absolutely not, she told me. She teaches line dancing to contemporary tunes and there’s not a rhinestone in sight.
It is also, she explained, one of the best forms of exercise for the ageing body, and as somebody who is also a qualified physical fitness instructor as well as a dance teacher, I think she should know. So, I decided to look into the health benefits of line dancing and see what others had to say. Quite a lot as it turned out! From academic studies to the tabloid press and age-related charities, line dancing gets a “yee-haw” and the thumbs up as a fun form of exercise.
So, how will a line dancing class raise your fitness levels? I first looked at an academic study by a Professor of Dance that precisely measured improvements. Professor Aguilar, an expert in dance and physical fitness, studied a group of students and measured heart rate as one of the key fitness elements. As she points out in the introduction to the study, she assumed at the start that the combined foot and leg movements would provide a beneficial cardiovascular and cardio-respiratory workout. And, her study showed that it did improve cardiovascular health, particularly in lowering the resting heart rate, which is one of the main indicators of heart health. But, the other benefits are equally interesting.
Improved mental alertness
Professor Aguilar noted that line dancing improves ‘alertness to verbal cues’. That’s because in a class the students take constant instructions from the teacher in the ‘call-out’ style associated with country dancing. The students are not always facing the teacher, so they have to react to instructions without a visual clue and this helps improve brain function. Learning the names of all the steps is another ‘brain game’ that encourages alertness.
This is backed up by ballet-trained Sheila Dickie, administrator for the Company of Elders, an amateur dance company of enthusiastic ‘elders’ set up by the world-famous Sadler’s Wells theatre. She believes dance is the best form of physical and mental exercise for people in later life because “you have to concentrate when you’re learning a new dance and remember movements from one week to the next”.
You’ve got rhythm
Reacting to verbal cues also helps the line dancers develop their own sense of rhythm and musicality. Dancing also helps maintain physical balance – we’re not quite the twinkle toes we were in our youth and any activity that helps us keep our balance can be a big health advantage because we are less likely to fall. And, here’s good news for stroke victims: a 64-year old at a London class reported that although she had suffered a stroke six months prior to attending the class, she found that dancing really helped her to regain her balance and co-ordination.
Professor Aguilar also points out that line dancing encourages the use of “proper body mechanics for posture, balance and coordination”. She also advises that without a well-trained teacher, dancing is potentially an accident waiting to happen. This is something that the dance teacher from Chelmsford was also adamant about – make sure the teacher has good dance qualifications and preferably a certification in physical fitness as well.
In every source I read, the participants rated line dancing highly because it is a group activity. Indeed, in line dancing, compared with other forms of dance, every step is synchronised so everyone in the class really is involved as a whole group, which is a little different to partner dancing as in ballroom or Latin styles. For older people, especially those who live alone, the health benefits of being in company and feeling part of a group are immeasurable.
Dancing is also a relatively inexpensive form of exercise, another benefit acknowledged by all the experts. All you need is comfortable clothing and a pair of suitable shoes. At least you now know that you don’t need cowboy boots when you sign up for a modern line dancing class near you.