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Concerning the Dance Smart Project

Publication date:  November 2013

Written by Rick Archer with assistance from Richard Powers

Recommended Reading: 

Rick Archer's Note: 

When it comes to defining a Senior Citizen, the four ages generally used are 50, 55, 60, and 65.  Having turned 64, I consider myself close enough to 65 to speak for anyone 50 and above.

In my heart I still think I am a kid.  But my body doesn't always agree with that assessment.  There are at least one or two nights a week when I hit the couch and don't move again until nature calls.  If you smiled at that, good for you.  Without a sense of humor, growing old is a pitiless process indeed.

There are four things we all need at this age - Wealth, health, a sharp mind, and companionship.  There isn’t much advice I can give on “wealth”, but I am more than happy to comment on health and a sharp mind. 

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I have noticed names don’t come to me as easily as they once did.  For example, last night I drew a blank on the name of “Channing Tatum”, the handsome heartthrob star of several recent movies.  I knew his name, but then it slipped my mind.  This happens a little more frequently than I would prefer. 

This reminds me of one of my favorite jokes… except that the Gladys and Mabel joke isn’t quite as funny as it used to be.

Two elderly ladies named Gladys and Mabel have been friends for many decades. Over the years they have shared all kinds of activities and adventures.  They made a point to enter the same retirement home so they could continue to be together.

Lately, their activities had been limited to meeting a few times a week to play cards.

One day they were playing gin rummy in the Solarium when Gladys looked at Mabel. Gladys stared blankly for a moment, then said, "Now don't get mad at me.....I know we've been friends for a long time.....but I just can't think of your name!  I've thought and thought, but I can't remember it.  Please tell me what your name is."

Mabel glared back at her.  For at least three minutes she just stared and glared at Gladys.  Finally Mabel said, "How soon do you need to know?"

Everything I read says that the first step to health and a sharp mind stem from the same thing – exercise, exercise, exercise.

As Dr. Oz put it,

“To lower the risk of dementia, keep your cardiovascular system healthy.

Physical activity (10,000 steps a day) and stress reduction (meditate 10 minutes two times a day) build brain size, keep neural connections healthy, and lower blood pressure.

So does eliminating the Five Food Felons --no trans or saturated fats, no added sugars or sugar syrups and no grain that isn't 100 percent whole. 

Build new neural pathways.  Increase brain strength with a new hobby like dance, reading, playing intriguing games, staying engaged and interacting with people.

Now you're thinking.”

I know that you know where I am heading with this.  I am about to recommend “dancing” again.  How did you guess?  See, you are already smart!

But you aren’t that smart… I am well aware that a lot of you are not dancing nearly enough.  It’s time to get moving on that floor!

I say Dancing keeps us young… for lots of reasons. 

You don’t have to take my word for it.  It takes about 10 key strokes to find dozens of articles that agree with my assertion.   Try it yourself.  Type “benefits dancing senior citizen” into Google and watch as millions of links pop up faster than switched-on Christmas lights.

Dancing Makes Us Smarter!
by Richard Powers,
Stanford University (source): 

“For centuries, dance manuals and other writings have lauded the health benefits of dancing, usually as physical exercise. More recently we've seen research on further health benefits of dancing, such as stress reduction and increased serotonin level, with its sense of well-being.

Most recently we've heard of another benefit: Frequent dancing apparently makes us smarter

A major study added to the growing evidence that stimulating one's mind by dancing can ward off Alzheimer's disease and other dementia, much as physical exercise can keep the body fit. Dancing increases cognitive acuity at all ages.

The New England Journal of Medicine published a report on the effects of recreational activities on mental acuity in aging.   Here it is in a nutshell:

A 21-year study of senior citizens, 75 and older, was led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, funded by the National Institute on Aging, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine.  Their method for objectively measuring mental acuity in aging was to monitor rates of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.

The study wanted to see if any physical or cognitive recreational activities influenced mental acuity.  They discovered that some activities had a significant beneficial effect.  Other activities had none.

They studied cognitive activities such as:

1.    reading books

2.    writing for pleasure

3.    doing crossword puzzles

4.    playing cards

5.    playing musical instruments. 

And they studied physical activities like

6.    playing tennis

7.    playing golf

8.    swimming

9.    dancing

10. bicycling

11. walking for exercise

12. doing housework.

One of the surprises of the study was that almost none of the physical activities appeared to offer any protection against dementia.  There can be cardiovascular benefits of course, but the focus of this study was the mind.

There was one important exception:  the only physical activity to offer protection against dementia was frequent dancing.

Bicycling - 0%

Swimming - 0%

Playing golf - 0%

Reading - 35% reduced risk of dementia

Doing crossword puzzles at least four days a week - 47%

Dancing frequently - 76%!!  


Dancing by far offered the greatest risk reduction of any activity studied, cognitive or physical. What could explain the reasons behind the significant cognitive benefits of dancing?

In this study, neurologist Dr. Robert Katzman proposed dancers are more resistant to the effects of dementia as a result of having greater cognitive reserve and increased complexity of neuronal synapses.

Like education, participation in mentally engaging activities lowers the risk of dementia by improving these neural qualities.

As Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Coyle explains in an accompanying commentary: "The cerebral cortex and hippocampus, which are critical to these activities, are remarkably plastic, and they rewire themselves based upon their use."

Our brain constantly rewires its neural pathways, as needed. If it doesn't need to, then it won't. So the important thing to do is to give our brain a workout whenever possible.

Aging and memory

When brain cells die and synapses weaken with aging, our nouns go first, like names of people, because there's only one neural pathway connecting to that stored information. If the single neural connection to that name fades, we lose access to it. As people age, some of them learn to parallel process, to come up with synonyms to go around these roadblocks.

The key here is Dr. Katzman's emphasis on the complexity of our neuronal synapses. More is better. Do whatever you can to create new neural paths. The opposite of this is taking the same old well-worn path over and over again, with habitual patterns of thinking and living.

When I was studying the creative process as a graduate student at Stanford, I came across the perfect analogy to this:

The more stepping stones across the creek, the easier it is to cross in your own style.

The focus of that aphorism was creative thinking, to find as many alternative paths as possible to a creative solution.  But as we age, parallel processing becomes more critical.  Now it's no longer a matter of style, it's a matter of survival — getting across the creek at all.  Randomly dying brain cells are like stepping stones being removed one by one.  Those who had only one well-worn path of stones are completely blocked when some are removed. 

But those who spent their lives trying different mental routes each time, creating a myriad of possible paths, still have several paths left.

As the study shows, we need to keep as many of those paths active as we can, while also generating new paths, to maintain the complexity of our neuronal connections.

In other words: Intelligence — don’t leave home without it.



What exactly do we mean by "intelligence"?

You'll probably agree that intelligence isn't just a numerical measurement, with a number of 100 plus or minus assigned to it.  But what is it?

To answer this question, we go back to the most elemental questions possible.  Why do animals have a brain?  To survive?  No, plants don't have a brain and they survive.  To live longer?  No, many trees outlive us.

As neuroscience educator Robert Sylwester notes, mobility is central to everything that is cognitive, whether it is physical motion or the mental movement of information.  Plants have to endure whatever comes along, including predators eating them.  Animals, on the other hand, can travel to seek food, shelter, mates, and to move away from unfavorable conditions.  Since we can move, we need a cognitive system that can comprehend sensory input and intelligently make choices.

Semantics will differ for each of us, but according to many, if the stimulus-response relationship of a situation is automatic, we don't think of the response as requiring our intelligence.  We don't use the word "intelligent" to describe a banana slug, even though it has a rudimentary brain. 

But when the brain evaluates several viable responses and chooses one (a real choice, not just following habits), the cognitive process is considered to be intelligent.

As Jean Piaget put it, intelligence is what we use when we don't already know what to do.


Why dancing?

We immediately ask two questions:

1.    Why is dancing better than other activities for improving mental capabilities?

2.    Does this mean all kinds of dancing, or is one kind of dancing better than another?

That's where this particular study falls short.  It doesn't answer these questions as a stand-alone study.  Fortunately, it isn't a stand-alone study.  It's one of many studies, over decades, which have shown that we increase our mental capacity by exercising our cognitive processes.  Intelligence: Use it or lose it.  And it's the other studies which fill in the gaps in this one.  Looking at all of these studies together lets us understand the bigger picture.

The essence of intelligence is making decisions.  The best advice, when it comes to improving your mental acuity, is to involve yourself in activities which require split-second rapid-fire decision making, as opposed to rote memory (retracing the same well-worn paths), or just working on your physical style.

One way to do that is to learn something new.  Not just dancing, but anything new.  Don't worry about the probability that you'll never use it in the future.  Take a class to challenge your mind.  It will stimulate the connectivity of your brain by generating the need for new pathways.  Difficult classes are better for you, as they will create a greater need for new neural pathways.

However, by all means include a dance class, which can be even more effective.  Dancing integrates several brain functions at once — kinesthetic, rational, musical, and emotional — further increasing your neural connectivity.


What kind of dancing?

Question: Do all kinds of dancing lead to increased mental acuity? 

No, not all forms of dancing will produce the same benefit, especially if they only work on style, or merely retrace the same memorized paths.  Making as many split-second decisions as possible is the key to maintaining our cognitive abilities.  Remember: intelligence is what we use when we don't already know what to do.

We wish that 25 years ago the Albert Einstein College of Medicine thought of doing side-by-side comparisons of different kinds of dancing, to find out which was better.  But we can figure it out by looking at who they studied: senior citizens 75 and older, beginning in 1980.  Those who danced in that particular population were former Roaring Twenties dancers (back in 1980) and then former Swing Era dancers (today), so the kind of dancing most of them continued to do in retirement was what they began when they were young: freestyle social dancing -- basic foxtrot, swing, waltz and maybe some Latin. 

I've been watching senior citizens dance all of my life, from my parents (who met at a Tommy Dorsey dance), to retirement communities, to the Roseland Ballroom in New York.  I almost never see memorized sequences or patterns on the dance floor.  I mostly see easygoing, fairly simple social dancing — lead and follow.  

But social dancing isn't that simple!  It requires a lot of split-second decision-making, in both the Lead and Follow roles.

At this point, I want to clarify that I'm not demonizing memorized sequence dancing or style-focused pattern-based ballroom dancing.  I sometimes enjoy sequence dances myself, and there are stress-reduction benefits of any kind of dancing, plus the cardiovascular benefits of physical exercise, and even further benefits of feeling connected to a community of dancers.  So all dancing is good.

But when it comes to preserving (and improving) our mental acuity, then some forms are significantly better than others.  While all dancing requires some intelligence, I encourage you to use your full intelligence when dancing, in both the Lead and Follow roles.  The more decision-making we can bring into our dancing, the better.


Who benefits more, women or men?

In social dancing, the Follow role automatically gains a benefit.  The woman must make hundreds of split-second decisions as to what to do next, sometimes unconsciously so. 

Women don't "follow", but rather “react”.  Women interpret the signals their partners are giving them, and this requires intelligence and decision-making, which is active, not passive. 

This benefit is greatly enhanced by dancing with different partners, not always with the same fellow.  With different dance partners, you have to adjust much more and be aware of more variables.  This is great for staying smarter longer.

But men, you can also match her degree of decision-making if you choose to do so 

Here's how:

1) Really pay attention to your partner and what works best for her.  Notice what is comfortable for her, where she is already going, which signals are successful with her and which aren't, and constantly adapt your dancing to these observations.  That's rapid-fire split-second decision making.

2) Don't lead the same old patterns the same way each time.  Challenge yourself to try new things.  Make more decisions more often.  

The huge side-benefit is that your partners will have much more fun dancing with you when you are attentive to their dancing and constantly adjusting for their comfort and continuity of motion.  And as a result, you'll have more fun too.

Full engagement

Those who fully utilize their intelligence in dancing, at all levels, love the way it feels.  Spontaneous leading and following both involve entering a flow state.  Both leading and following benefit from a highly active attention to possibilities.

That's the most succinct definition I know for intelligent dancing: a highly active attention to possibilities.  And I think it's wonderful that both the Lead and Follow role share that same ideal.

The best Leads appreciate the many options that the Follow must consider every second, and respect and appreciate the Follow's input into the collaboration of partner dancing.  The Follow is finely attuned to the here-and-now in relaxed responsiveness, and so is the Lead.

Once this highly active attention to possibilities, flexibility, and alert tranquility are perfected in the art of dance partnering, dancers find it even more beneficial in their other relationships, and in everyday life.

Dance often

The study made another important suggestion: do it often. 

Seniors who did crossword puzzles four days a week had a measurably lower risk of dementia than those who did the puzzles once a week.  It was the same thing for dancing.  If you can't take classes or go out dancing four times a week, then at least dance as much as you can.  The more, the better.

And do it now, the sooner the better.  It's essential to start building your cognitive reserve now.  Some day you'll need as many of those stepping stones across the creek as possible. 

Don't wait — start building those neural dance pathways now.


Rick’s Note:  Assuming this article is correct… and I found Mr. Powers to be quite persuasive… it behooves any person over 50 to use dance as a primary way to stay sharp.  Social Dancing has been shown to significantly delay the mind’s inevitable aging process. 

In fact, Dancing is such a valuable skill for Seniors that it boggles the mind why anyone would fail to heed this message. 

No disrespect to swimming, cycling, jogging, walking, golf, tennis, and so on.  These activities are marvelous for the exercise they offer and the fun as well.  However, in terms of keeping the mind sharp, these activities do not engage the brain like dancing does. 

Dancing is more effective because it involves both the mind and the body.  Apparently sharpening the mind works best when decision-making is combined with movement.  The human mind is wired to think on one’s feet so to speak.  This explains why Lead-Follow situations help to stimulate the mind.

This article held one surprise for me.  I was not aware there are mental benefits from merely taking a dance class.  The article implied that ‘learning’ in itself is invaluable.  It doesn’t matter whether the progress is fast or slow.  All that matters is that a person finds the class CHALLENGING.  That alone starts the brain’s rewiring process.

If one approaches a dance class as a series of puzzles to be solved, then any dance activity that forces the brain to engage in a series of decisions involving MOVEMENT becomes beneficial.

In other words, although we certainly wish to improve our skills in a dance class, the struggle to learn is just as valuable as the goal itself. 



Richard Powers pointed out that there are “further benefits from feeling connected to a community of dancers.”

I completely agree.  One of the beauties of SSQQ is that people knew exactly where to go to see their friends. 

A major added benefit to social dance for the Fifty Plus crowd is that Social Dance fulfills our need for companionship quite nicely.  This is an important point, because without a sense of connection, people risk both physical and mental decline.

In 2000, Robert Putnam, a Harvard political science professor, published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

Putnam’s book made a persuasive case for the dangers of loneliness and isolation.  Putnam speculated that social isolation is "a chronically stressful condition to which the organism responds by aging faster."  In other words, loneliness is a serious problem.

Some studies have documented the strong correlation between connectedness and health at the community level.  Others have zeroed in on individuals, both in natural setting and in experimental conditions.  Researchers have been able to show that social isolation PRECEDES illness. 

Over the last twenty years more than a dozen large studies of this sort in the USA, Scandinavia, and Japan have shown that people who are socially disconnected are between two and five times more likely to die from all causes compared with matched individuals who have close ties with family, friends, and the community.

On the other hand, countless studies document the link between society and psyche: people who have close friends and confidants, friendly neighbors, and supportive co-workers are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem, and problems with eating and sleeping. 

If social isolation leads to unhappiness, then social connectedness leads to health.  For example, study after study show that married people or people in committed relationships are consistently happier than people who are unattached, all else being equal. 

These findings will hardly surprise most Americans.  It is fairly common knowledge that good relationships with family members, friends, and romantic partners - far more than money or fame - are prerequisites for their happiness.

Conclusion – The Dance Smart Project

We need to get ourselves out dancing more often. It starts with individuals agreeing with this idea and making a pledge to add more dancing into their life.  The Dance Smart article states the more partners we dance with, the better the results.  So we need many people to buy into this idea for it to work.  

If enough individuals come to this same conclusion, then a group consciousness will kick in.

It all starts with one or two people, then word of mouth spreads the news and more people begin join.  It is exponential, but some of you need to take the Lead.  As they say, the rest will Follow if you get my drift.

I challenge the Old Guard to get out there and dance.  Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday … whenever you can.  Make a habit out of it!

For all of you who already know how to dance, but don’t use it FREQUENTLY, this is a call to arms… uh, make that a call to feet.  It’s the “Dance Smart Thing” to do.

And for those of you who have concerns and issues about participating in the Dance Smart Project, send your thoughts and questions to me.  I will show you exactly what steps you need to take to get out there.

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