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Dance: the movement activity for the elderly.

Here is an all-purpose -- and inexpensive -- activity providing many benefits

Dance equals the most vigorous of sport participation and it may provide the same physical exertion that sports and games provide with less space requirements. Dr. Kenneth Cooper, founder of the Aerobics Center in Dallas, states "ballroom dance is a fairly minimal activity, but if you can combine frequency per week with duration, you can get a nice training effect." Other possible physical benefits of dance for older adults include: improved balance, coordination and kinesthetic awareness, improved alignment with decreased arthritis difficulties, insomnia, neuromuscular hypertension, and low back pain. Dance also seems to maintain interest better than a regimen of calisthenics.

Dance may contribute to the physical fitness of its participants through versatile exercise that aids muscle tone, weight control, gracefulness, general body control, and health. In 1988, Sutton at the University of Minnesota found that middle-aged men who participated in moderate activity over a seven year period reduced the risk of fatal coronary heart disease incidence by thirty-seven percent. Simmons measured changes in the cardiorespiratory systems of older adults after participating in thirty sessions of dancing and no form of aerobic dance was used, only modified folk, couple, and square dances. Results identified that low to moderate intensity in a regular dance program did contribute significant improvements in predicted V|O.sub.2~ Max and resting systolic blood pressure. These findings support the premise that dancing is a legitimate aerobic workout for older adults.


Dance provides for self expression, even if it's only shuffling movements, which still have some element of "creating one's own routine". Each individual shuffles their feet as they wish to. Though some dance forms such as square and folk have very structured steps and formations, ballroom and social dance allow individuals to be creative and try different steps and moves.

Social Interaction

Dance has long been a rationalization for getting people together. Unlike other activities, dance allows participants to concentrate on each other rather than play to an audience or strive to meet regimented skill specifications. Dance may decrease isolation, loneliness and boredom, increase tactile support, cooperation and enjoyment, and it also gives participants something to do with their hands, feet, and body if communicating on a purely verbal level is awkward.

Other areas that dance may contribute to include:

Rhythm and coordination

Relaxation and escape

Recognition and understanding of one's own culture

Opportunity for adventure and new experience

Characteristics of the Aged

According to Shephard, there are two primary questions that the leader of an older adult dance program must consider. First, what movements and fitness demands are required to successfully perform this dance? Dances with slow tempos and very little locomotion involved should be chosen for those individuals with minimal fitness levels. As fitness levels improve the tempo and amount of space that steps cover may be increased.

Secondly, what is the skill complexity and cognitive demands of this dance? Older individuals need clear and concrete instructions and an opportunity to learn at their own pace. Begin with only the basic steps of a social dance or the most simple degree of difficulty for folk and square dances. Progression on step complexity should be slow with sufficient repetition for learning. The gradual loss of sensitivity in the feet will affect the older adult's sense of position and balance; therefore, steps requiring rapid change in motion or direction should be avoided.

Individuals should have a medical examination before participation in dance programs. After the examination the instructor then needs to assess the biomechanical capabilities and weaknesses to determine appropriate type and intensity of movement according to the need of each individual. There should be sensitivity to the variability of present fitness and mobility levels within the dances called. Traditional movements and their style of execution should be modified in response to signs of over-exertion. The risk of injuries, such as strains, and sprains increases with age, particularly after the age of 55. Furthermore, many older adults fear bodily injury during a movement activity, and for good reason, since an injury can be a serious blow to self-sufficiency and personal freedom.

In short, dance leaders should possess a sound understanding of these limitations and be able to teach the participants rules of safe participation.

Social/Emotional Characteristics

Motivation of the older adult to seriously participate in a dance program requires the leadership of a caring person who has a personality that assures the participant of success and well-being. The leader's ability to provide meaningful feedback that conveys an appreciation of the older adult's accomplishments will also be motivational.

Different types of dance can lead to different types of social interaction. Line and folk dances allow for simultaneous interaction among the group. Mixers allow for short acquaintances with everyone participating in the dance. Square dances provide interaction for a small group of friends. Social dances allow a couple to interact apart from the group, although the steps from the social dances can be performed in line formation without the need for separating into couples.

The Dance Routine

The first dances should always be chosen to slowly warm-up the body. The last dances should also be slow for a cooling-down effect. The routines between might alternate among fast, moderate, or slow tempos as long as continuous movement is sustained throughout. It is often helpful to end each class session with a short period of relaxation.

Any or all of these can be used to provide residents with exercise, social opportunities and fun -- and sustain and improve the independence they have remaining.

Frank B. Ashley III, EdD, is Assistant Professor, Department of Health and Kinesiology, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, and Mary Crenan is on the staff of the Capital City Nursing Center, Austin, TX.

Some dances and options that may be included in a program for older adults include:

Folk Dances

Alunelul: Rumanian Folk Dance. Warm-up. Cotton-Eyed

Joe: American Heritage Dance. Warm up/Aerobic.

Cshebogar: Hungarian Gypsy dance that dramatizes the moth as it flies around a flame.

Green Sleeves: Old English country dance.

Hpak: Ukrainian dance

Hora: Israeli Dance, the name of which means "tempo" or "movement"

Miserlou: Greek dance (which originated, interestingly enough, at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA)

Virginia Reel: Originally known as Sir Roger DeCoverely, an English dance.

Social Dances

Waltz: May be played in one of three tempos Slow as a cool-down Medium or fast as warm-up

Fox-Trot: Can be danced to almost any good 4/4 meter music Tempo ranges from slow to medium speed

Samba: Latin American dance from Brazil may be danced at a fast or slow tempo, even though the faster tempo is generally preferred.

Rumba: Cuban dance in 4/4 meter Tempo ranges from fast to slow

Cha-Cha: Latin American dance that is said to be a Cuban innovation of the old basic Latin form. Written in 4/4 meter and can be used as a warm-up or aerobic dance.

Swing: The all inclusive term that is applied to syncopated Fox-trot dancing. Formerly called Jitterbug, Lindy, Hop, and various other names in different sections of the country. May be used as warm-up and aerobic activity.

Polka: Dance is done in uneven rhythm in 2/4 meter. Definitely an aerobic activity if done properly.
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Author:Crenan, Mary
Publication:Nursing Homes
Date:May 1, 1993
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