Trevor Hancock: Dance your way into a healthy old age

Many years ago, the American Health Foundation had one of my all-time favourite slogans: “The secret of life is to die young … but as late as possible!” I am privileged to dance with a group who live that approach.

The Hollytree Morris dancers were part of the great folk revival of the 1970s, being formed in 1973. Morris dancing is a centuries-old English traditional folk dance, with sides all over England and around the world.

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One way to understand it is as a form of non-violent rugby: A group of people who get together to do something energetic in a team, then go to the pub to drink beer and sing songs.

Some members of Hollytree have been doing this together since 1973, and many are in their 70s and a few in their 80s.

In fact, at 66, I am one of the youngest members of the side. What distinguishes them is their physical and spiritual energy, their ability to play and have fun and be young.

This weekend, we are celebrating the oldest of our number, Fred. He turns 90 this week, and still practises every week and comes out to dance in public when we do that. In fact, we think Fred is probably the oldest active Morris dancer in the world.

So Morris sides from all over the Pacific Northwest will be in town to help us celebrate.

But I am not writing this simply to extol Fred or the other members of our side, nor to advertise our dance-out. Rather, I want to make a larger point about the health benefits of participation in the arts in general, and dance in particular.

When I give presentations to recreation and parks organizations and public health audiences about the health benefits of recreation, I always use a picture of us dancing. And I say: “Look what is happening here.”

First, we are dancing, being physically active and using our strength, agility, flexibility and balance — all the things the exercise advisers tell us we should do.

Second, we are being creative, engaged in the arts and learning together.

One of the beauties of Morris and other dance forms is that there are always new dances to learn, or old dances to modify. Dancing keeps our minds active — and flexible and agile, too.

Third, we are outdoors, often dancing in and connecting with nature. And we are also dancing in public; a little public appreciation and applause helps you feel good.

Finally, dancing together like this is a social experience. We are working together, forming lifelong friendships and social-support networks. Going to the pub is not really about drinking beer, but about socializing.

Put all this together and you have a recipe for fun and a healthy old age. But while the benefits might seem obvious to those of us engaged in dance, there has been surprisingly little research on the topic.

As recently as 2009, a group of New Zealand-based researchers could state that “no reviews on the physical benefits of dancing for healthy older adults have been published in the scientific literature.”

In their review, they found a few studies that had some reasonable evidence that through dancing, older adults could increase their aerobic power, muscle endurance, strength and flexibility in their lower body, as well as their balance, agility and gait. Of course, this was not news to the Hollytree dancers.

A more recent review from the U.K. of recreational dance in young people found, not surprisingly, that it improved fitness and bone health and could help reduce obesity, and found some evidence it could improve body image and reduce anxiety.

A 2006 brochure from Arts Council England noted many benefits of dance, which it noted was second in popularity only to football in English schools.

The ministers of public health and of culture wrote: “Dance can have a powerful effect on people’s lives and we want to see the physical, emotional, mental and social benefits of dance extended to as many people as possible.”

By the way, we really do hope to see you at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 13, in front of the legislature. Come and see us demonstrate the health benefits of dance and while you are at it, wish Fred well. Better yet, come and dance with us — we think it is part of the secret to a healthy old age!

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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