Moving Towards Dance for Older Adults

by Mary Jane Warner, Department of Dance, York University
I began dance classes at a young age and assumed that I would always have the satisfaction of taking a dance class. As I aged the classes became increasingly difficult, especially after two hip replacements in my sixties. Typical of the older adult, my balance and flexibility declined, getting to and from the floor was increasingly difficult, and jumps had to be limited in both height and quantity. No longer able to keep up with much younger classmates, I began looking for dance classes for older but active adults, but there didn’t seem to be much available in my community.Not able to find appropriate dance classes, I turned to fitness classes. Those geared to the 55 plus age group were not sufficiently challenging but regular low impact classes and a personal trainer were alternative options that enabled me to recover from hip surgery and to keep my body in reasonable condition. But something was always missing in these alternative fitness classes that made them less satisfying than my previous dance classes.What were the missing ingredients?


First, the music component was compromised. I was used to a live accompanist who improvised music in modern classes or played classical music for ballet. The exercise classes were done to music, usually in the same genre throughout, but the music seemed to be used more as background sound, often loud and pounding, rather than as something designed to enhance the combination and support the mover. The exercises were repetitive and quickly became boring, unlike dance classes where new combinations were introduced regularly to challenge the students both physically and intellectually. I felt like a robot, rather than being a dancer who brought artistry to the movement. There was no opportunity for creativity since the students were never invited to do their own movement or express themselves.

For several years I persevered with fitness classes but kept thinking that dance classes would be a far more rewarding experience for myself and other older adults, especially for those who had never experienced dance classes with a creative component. Recently I was successful in obtaining funding from the Ministry of Health Promotion and Sport, under their “Healthy Communities Fund” to develop a program called “Dance Activity for Older Adults.” I am fortunate to be working with colleague, April Nakaima, who has considerable experience teaching dance to older adults in the United States.

The project is being carried out through the Department of Dance at York University. Dance majors enrolled in the Pedagogy course have the option of doing their teaching practicum in a seniors’ community centre. They will develop content in my Pedagogy course, but will be closely supervised and guided by April Nakaima who will visit the teaching sites on a regular basis.

Although the student teachers will design their own classes for the seniors’ centres, each class will have a similar format that can be adapted for older adults of all ages and abilities. All classes will use a wide variety of music styles from classical to jazz and world music in an attempt to locate music that appeals to everyone. The dance sessions will begin with a warm up that will prepare the participants for more energetic activity. This section, approximately 20 to 30 minutes in length, will concentrate on providing a gentle aerobic workout designed to increase flexibility, strength and endurance with some combinations used in every class but with some variation to stimulate memory.

Each class will incorporate some type of combination that features transfer of weight to assist the participants in developing increased skills to move easily into all directions. In this section, the instructors can also incorporate various styles of dance to meet the interests of the participants. Some centres might do some line dance here, while others might want salsa, tap or ballet. By allowing the participants to determine the dance forms we hope they will stay motivated and also develop a broader awareness of the potential of dance. The last portion of the class will incorporate some activity that will encourage the participants to bring their own creativity to the movement. This segment will be introduced gradually as the class members gain increased confidence in their abilities. They might be encouraged to take a combination that they have learned and add on a few more moves. As they grow in experience and confidence they might develop their own dance to show to community centre members.

Although the classes will be suitable for the active older adult, the student teachers will be guided in how to make the class more inclusive so that those in wheel chairs or experiencing some memory loss can also participate. We hope that participants will want to continue dancing and that we can gradually expand the program to include specific classes for varied senior populations. Many of us believe that everyone can dance in one form or another. Once dance is experienced in its broader form, older adults will quickly discover that “dance is to live.”

One thought on “Moving Towards Dance for Older Adults

  1. I am glad that your class will encourage participants to offer their own creativity. As a dance therapist, I teach seniors seated exercise as well as Yoga on a mat. Instruction is good for warmup and body awareness, but giving them an opportunity to be creative unifies body and mind and helps them to feel like vital adults rather than passive participants.

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