12 March 2014 by Charlotte Metcalf

Dancing: your route to lifelong health

To keep in peak mental and physical shape, says Charlotte Metcalf, head for the barre: the Royal Academy of Dance is giving classes round the country to generation high50

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If you can do this, you may not need to join the Dance for Lifelong Wellbeing initiative. Photo from Corbis

When my nine-year-old daughter wanted to give up ballet, I dug my heels in. Like many women over 50 with an impending duchess’ hump, I had increasingly regretted abandoning ballet in my early teens, for nothing preserves posture like the terpsichorean arts.

Then I heard about dance classes for older novices, and saw a way of persuading my daughter to stick it out. If I could pirouette, she certainly could. 

The classes are part of a Royal Academy of Dance nationwide initiative, Dance for Lifelong Wellbeing, which encourages the 50-plusses to dance their way towards health and longevity. I joined an evening class at the Academy’s Battersea headquarters.

There are men at other classes, but I arrived to find a dozen other women, dressed in sports and casual wear. Most joined the class in January and had already formed a close-knit group, but they welcomed me in.

“You’ll love it. Learning the steps is so good for the brain,” said one. I was prepared to push my body but had not anticipated exercising my mind…

Amazing grace

We begin in a circle, imagining we are around a big bread oven. We pat, knead, stretch, fling, pull, and pummel our imaginary dough until every muscle is warmed up and relaxed, and we can almost smell the yeast rising as our loaves bake.

Next, still in a circle, we close our eyes. Helen, our Australian teacher, reads a poem written by her grandmother about an exotic landscape. Then she asks us to move according to how the poem has inspired us. Some soar like eagles or dive into the waterfall, others run with the breeze or tiptoe precariously along a cliff’s edge.

We pair up and imitate each other’s movements, scurrying like mice or fluttering like butterflies. I am struck by how graceful everyone looks – despite the giggling – and moved by the palpable joy in the room. 

To keep up, cross-step in the right direction and fling my hat out on cue, I am concentrating so hard that I am entirely in the moment

“It’s great fun, like being a child again,” one sapphire-eyed woman says. “We love the music. It’s all about losing our inhibitions, and we get better at it as the weeks go by.

“It’s liberating to do something we’d never normally do outside the privacy of our own kitchens.”

A tiny bespectacled woman adds: “It’s such an uncompetitive, non-threatening environment. You move as you can. There’s no right or wrong.”

Helen hands out glittery cardboard top hats and we form two lines for a cabaret routine.

It’s very difficult to twirl, side-step, tap and click in my fingers in time to the music. To keep up, cross-step in the right direction and fling my hat out on cue, I am concentrating so hard that I am entirely in the moment.

My worries recede as my brain is forced to obey the rhythm and control my feet. On the third run-through we almost crack it, and it gives us a huge sense of achievement. We throw our hats in the air and dance around the room, laughing happily.

As I am leaving, one of my classmates tells me, “It’s not till a few hours later that you’ll really feel the benefits. Around nine at night I’m usually overcome by a sense of well-being and peace. Check yourself at nine and see just how good you feel.”

Dancing for Life

If you can do this (shot at a London class) Dance for Lifelong Wellbeing may be right up your street. Photo by Robert Griffin

Only reconnect

My class and others like it were set up by the Royal Academy in response to a study and report, Dance for Lifelong Wellbeing, which highlighted dance’s physical and mental benefits, from balance to cognitive ability, among older age groups.  

Now Wandsworth Council, the Academy’s host, is offering free dance classes. There has also been a Get Dancin’ week across Scotland and classes set up in northern England and the Midlands.

This is just the start for the Royal Academy, determined that such schemes should be freely accessible nationwide.  

After my class, I talk to Dr Anne Hogan, the Royal Academy’s Director of Education. She has the enviable poise particular to women who’ve never stopped hoofing.  

“You’re never past your dancing days,’ she says. “In our pensioner groups, our oldest pupil is 102. Sometimes you lose the ability to have fun and happiness, and dance helps you reconnect with that.” 

Later that night, out at dinner, a friend says: “You look very well and happy.”

Realising how good I feel, I glance at my watch. It’s exactly nine o’clock. And I resolve that, if I can dance my way to happiness and health in my fifties, there’s no way my daughter’s giving up dancing. Ever.

Charlotte is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, producing films for the BBC, Channel 4, CNN and the UN. She writes for The Spectator, The Daily Mail, The Times, Tatler and more.
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