How the over 50s are dancing the night away


The over-50s are less embarrassed to dance than the young, according to research. From Zumba to Ballroom, we explore the dance opportunities for those whose teenage years are behind them.


It’s Friday night and reggae is booming out of the speakers in St Paul’s Church hall, East London. Couples sway and singles sashay to the thumping Jamaican rhythms, hips grinding and eyes closed in reverie. It’s loud enough for any nightclub, but this joint has a unique door policy. If you’re not over 50, you’re not coming in. Every fortnight, up to 100 people gather at the church hall in Hackney to bounce to DJ Stevie Q’s discerning collection of reggae, rock-steady and dancehall. He spins back-to-back Seventies classics by Gregory Isaacs and Jimmy Cliff, but isn´t afraid to slip in some current hits to bring his audience bumping and grinding to the present.

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Organiser Martha Nelson, 72, suffers from arthritis. “It’s good exercise. I never used to go out when I was younger,” she confesses. “I’m a shy person and my parents brought me up strict in the West Indies. I think I have more fun now!” Martha is one of the scores of older people enjoying an explosion of senior dance events across the country. Inspired by Strictly Come Dancing and an increased focus on fitness, organisations are reporting an unprecedented demand for tailored adult classes, which range from ballet and ballroom to seated dance for those with limited mobility. Last year, the Royal Academy of Dance saw a 70 per cent increase in new dancers aged over 50, many of whom are much older.

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Not only is this emerging legion of shape-shifters responding to overwhelming evidence of the health benefits of dance, but older people are likely to feel more liberated than their juniors. A survey conducted by the RAD shows that the older you get, the less embarrassed you are to dance in public. Out of 1,000 respondents, 55 per cent of those over the age of 45 said they don’t feel shy strutting their stuff, compared to just 41 per cent of under 45s. So what is sending seniors shimmying onto the dance floor?

“It’s partly generational,” says Fergus Early, artistic director of Green Candle, a dance charity that specialises in classes for the over 60s. “A lot of it is the baby boomers, they’re a bit more demanding out of life. They are not waiting to sit quietly and crumble.” The organisation has been running since 1987, but attendance numbers have doubled in the past two years. Now it works with around 400 dancers across London, many of whom are over 75. “It’s an exciting moment,” says Early. “People are beginning to recognise how dance and music together are a very powerful tool.”

A study by American researchers in 2003 found that dance was the most effective of all physical activities at warding off dementia. The constant need to assess movement, mirror actions and respond to music stimulates brain activity and promotes new synapse connections, increasing cognitive ability at any age.

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Dance is equally beneficial for preventing falls, which a third of all over-65s suffer at least once a year. In preliminary research by Sydney University, the focus on spatial awareness, flexibility and balance reduced this risk by 37 per cent. But while some choose dance for its health benefits, for others it is a second career. 67-year-old Barbara Pomroy trained as a Zumba Gold instructor 18 months ago after retiring from teaching. Removing the jumping from the regular Latin-inspired dance craze, it’s an accessible form of low impact exercise.

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“I was always the one dancing around the handbag,” says Barbara, who teaches four times a week for Age UK in Oxfordshire. “As you get older, the opportunities to dance get less and less. It used to be at the Christmas do – I’d be the first one up and the last one to sit down. Then I retired so I didn’t have that any more. This is how I get my dancing fix.”

Barbara thinks her age helps encourage older dancers to join her class, which counts several members in their eighties. Her oldest pupil is 87 year-old Sheila Kempson, who took up Zumba Gold in January following the death of her husband. They enjoyed ballroom dancing together and competed in amateur contests until his Alzheimers rendered it impossible. “It’s been a lifeline really, because you need something to take your mind off it. You can do it on your own and are made to feel so welcome. I enjoy it enormously.”

The social aspect of dance is a major draw for older people, who are suffering isolation like never before. The number of over-75s living alone has risen by 10 per cent in a decade, according to the latest ONS figures, reaching 7.1 million last year. Getting out of the house and meeting the same group of people once as week can provide much-needed comfort in times of loneliness.

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Yet this solace of group activity is even less accessed by men. So striking was the need to engage older males in healthy social activities that Green Candle launched Older Men Moving, a set of dance classes reserved for males. “With dance particularly, but in virtually all activities for older people, men are underrepresented,” says Fergus Early. “They are much more difficult to involve, engage and have that social interaction that women find easier.”

Describing himself as “the original Billy Elliot”, 80 year-old tap dancer Alan Beattie is no stranger to the stigma that distances men from dancing. His mum paid for his tap lessons from the age of seven, hiding it from his father, a North Yorkshire steelworker. “He was disgusted when he found out. He never saw me compete in tournaments.”

Alan has kept dancing and in 2013 reached the quarterfinals of Britain’s Got Talent, and those of Got to Dance. He teaches a weekly class for Age UK in Bedale, North Yorks and leads numerous tapathons and flashmobs for charity. “It’s a shame it’s not sufficiently realised how good dance is for your health,” he says. “I was teaching it to footballers and they said it wasn’t macho enough. After 15 minutes they had burned out and I hadn’t even warmed up.”

(Article source: The Telegraph)

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