Dancers of the #Seniorstars programme, Bühnen Bern Ballett, Switzerland. Clare Guss-West. Photographer: Nathalie Jufer
Every Wednesday at Bern Ballet, in Switzerland, the #Seniorstars – gangs of senior women aged 65-90+ gather. They shatter our preconceptions of senior activity – they are noisy, exuberant, confident, animated, articulate, engaged. On Wednesdays they feel alive, they feel visible, they feel free, they escape physical and age-related limitations, they break boundaries, they go beyond, they dare.
The Bern #Seniorstars are not an isolated phenomenon. Dance as a medium to promote physical and mental health and well-being is a bourgeoning and evidenced field of activity for diverse ages and populations across the globe from Australia to the US.
‘Dance for Health provides holistic, evidence-based activities for the individual to manage and adapt to physical, mental and social health challenges. In Dance for Health sessions, trained teaching artists engage people as dancers, rather than patients, in joyful, interactive, artistic practice.’(IADMS, 2021) 1
So why are senior women dancing?
What’s so unique about dancing? What are the active components of dance? How does dance transform and promote a global health cohesion? We know that participation in a creative or cultural activity is a tonic for mind and body – participants are 38% more likely to report in good health – but why would those who participate in dance be a staggering 62% more likely to report good health? 2. World-class endurance athlete, coach, and public health advocate Christopher Bergland suggests that
“Dance . . . is part of our collective DNA. Our bodies and brains have evolved to dance in synchronized unison and dancing on a regular basis seems to change the way we think and interact with one another.” 3
A biopsychosocial solution
One of the unique aspects of dance is that it can be physical, creative, cognitive and social all at the same time. Dance and its one-stop, holistic approach addresses biological, psychological, and social aspects of individual wellbeing and health in a naturally cohesive, interconnected mix that’s sugar coated with pure pleasure and fun.
In any average dancing group of seniors 65-90+, more so than with younger learners, there is a vast range of physical and cognitive levels and diverse physical and mental health conditions to be considered. Skilled teaching artists work with incredible flexibility and creativity to differentiate and adapt dance content such that every individual can participate and experience a sense of success.
Dance is obviously first and foremost as physical activity and there is abundant research extolling the virtues of being active. So, at its most basic dance promotes physical flexibility, balance, develops core strength, improves gait. As a result, some programmes target only older adult’s physical health challenges, providing a focus on Falls prevention for example. However, dance also stimulates the cardio vascular system, improving breathing and oxygenation, digestive function, lymph activity and therefore toxin removal for seniors. Its calming effect on the immune system’s trigger-response is particularly important for women suffering from chronic auto-immune conditions such as ME, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Rheumatoid Arthritis and Multiple Sclerosis or simply as a preventative measure to boost the immune system and promote a healthy extended quality of life.4
Creative – cognitive
More unique though is the ability of dance to music to promote enhanced kinesthetic awareness, coordination, proprioceptive and spatial perception, listening skills, reaction time, executive choice function and to promote a healthy cognitive reserve 5. These are all neurological functions that diminish as a natural part of the ageing process and yet have an enormous impact on retaining autonomy in day to day life. One active dance component then is the inclusion of creative and improvisational tasks in the dance class, that provide maximum opportunities for cognitive and neurological stimulation. In a 21-year study of active individuals, it was shown to be the challenge of negotiating the unknown and the in-the-moment responses demanded by dance, that promoted additional cognitive reserve to ward off cognitive decline and dementia 5. Neurologists are equally fascinated about the potential preventative and therapeutic use of dance in conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease, Stroke and Multiple Sclerosis.
Needless to say, the #Seniorstars sessions follow a prescribed progressive structure that is evidenced-based, ranging from feel-good movement guided by visualization and imagery, through increasing physical, cognitive, musical and spatial challenges, plus a good dose of improvisation and creative exploration thrown in to assure sustained brain wellness.
External Focus of Attention
Specific teaching strategies can be used to enhance the learning experience and movement outcome for seniors such as that of promoting an External Focus of Attention (EFA) 6. This mindful approach to teacher cueing takes the dancer’s focus away from self, self-consciousness, self-control and their physical limitations. Using an EFA brings immediate physiological effects such as reducing muscular hyper-tension – perhaps the result of fear and apprehension of falling. It allows increased range of motion, improved micro-adjustment and therefore stability and balance, deepening the breathing, slowing the heart-rate and releasing dopamine to both facilitate and consolidate new learning and provide a lasting feel-good factor. Teaching artists promote EFA by systematically introducing imagery or focusing on specific movement qualities and contrasts; emotional or musical interpretation; movement colour; musical listening, drama and story; characterization or through simple strategies such as a focus on partner dancers or dancing with props.
Tools for life
Female senior dancers take many of these physical and attentional focus skills from the dance class to apply them spontaneously to the challenges of day to day life. They practice tips for balance in the kitchen and put them into practice crossing the road or going up the stairs or for the more active, in their cross-country skiing excursions. They relish their freshly recovered reaction time and speed as they dodge passengers adeptly at rush hour on the local railway station. More touching are the many testimonies of senior women who used the dance ideas, the EFA imagery, musicality and artistic qualities to sustain body, mind and soul through the more serious challenges of stroke, Chemo and major heart surgery.
“The joyful, social, creative and expressive elements of dance are perhaps the precise reasons for its efficacy within health contexts. It is the ‘not therapy’ status of Dance for Health programs, along with the physically communicative aspects, that might account for their success in terms of participant retention and commitment, allowing for long term improvements to health.” 7
Not to be underestimated according to researchers is the effect of the social bonds that dancing together affords. Woman with their ability to adapt to change and their strength and responsibility from a focus of care for others, frequently outlive their husbands. Isolation is the most significant and debilitating aspect of aging then, provoking depression and mental ill health. Dancing together and overcoming shared challenges, provides for the essential human need for contact. We’ve danced through illness, we’ve danced through Covid, we’ve danced through loss – each dancer comes as they are and the total acceptance in class is a powerful cohesive alchemy.
So at Bern Ballet #Seniorstars – Wednesdays have become an indispensable medicine for the challenges of an extended, often solitary life. Through our shared creative and cognitive explorations, women from all walks of life draw strength and renewed joy to live every remaining present-moment to the full.
This article was authored by Clare-Guss West. Clare is the author of Attention and Focus in Dance and is a former professional dancer, choreographer, holistic health practitioner and author. Clare translates sports science attentional focus research for professional dance and Dance for Health applications. She delivers this for companies such as The Royal Ballet, Finnish National Ballet, Mark Morris Dance Group, NY and Bern Ballet, and teaches it for the MAS Dance Science, Bern University and Diploma ‘Dance, Health & Aging’, University Côte d’Azur, France. Chair of IADMS Dance for Health committee and Director, Dance & Creative Wellness Foundation she advocates internationally for dance as a creative healthcare practice.
Attention and Focus in Dance
- IADMS, Dance for Health Committee, 2021 Available here.
- Allin, P. Healthy attendance? The impact of cultural engagement and sports participation on health and satisfaction with life in Scotland Mar 2015. Pages 202-204 | Available here.
- Bergland, C. The Neuroscience of Dance, Psychology Today, 2018. Available here.
- Liponis, M. Ultra-longevity. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2007.
- Powers R. Use it or lose it: Dancing makes you smarter. Stanford Dance, 2010. Available here.
- Guss-West, C. Attention and Focus in Dance. Human Kinetics Books. Champaigne, Il. 2021
- Guss-West,C, and E. Jenkins. IADMS Blog. February 2019 Available here.
Header photo photographer credit: Nathalie Jufer.