For many years I have promoted the health and social benefits of leisure dance for older people. Anecdotal evidence from people who have participated in my health promoting dance classes (in various dance genres) firmly supports this.
I became interested in teaching Line dancing because I could see the potential health and social benefits it had to offer people of all ages as well as older people. My beliefs in the positive benefits offered through learning to dance never wavered and I am privileged to have taught and encouraged a great many people over the years. Although my focus is now on developing teachers I am still a passionate believer in the potential health and social benefits that leisure dance has to offer.
Having trained for and performed in the professional dance arena my initial mindset mainly valued elite dance and performance. The dancing for fun and wellbeing aspects were not necessarily at the forefront of my mind. However through my interests, education and experience in health education I could see that dance not only had the elite side but it could offer wellbeing related benefits too. Teaching dance to adults for purposes other than technical prowess was something I opened my mind to much more than I had previously. I explored and adapted my teaching skills so I could work in a useful way with people who wanted to dance but were not looking to be the next West End dancer or the next Darcy Bussell.
My involvement in dance with older people has covered a whole variety of dance genres including :- ballet, tap, Jazz dance, Salsa, modern and Line dancing. The genre which became hugely popular with older people is Line dancing and my classes were promoted as ‘fun, friendly and you don’t need a partner’. Being in an area with a high population of older people I discovered that ‘not needing a partner’ was the attraction for many people who had lost their partner or had a partner who did not want to dance. Instead of staying in to watch television people came out to dance and socialise with others. Friendships grew, physical activity levels increased and many participants reported general improvements to wellbeing.
Through the numerous health and dance events I have organised and taught at over the years I can confirm that teaching older people to dance requires the same dedication to preparation and application of appropriate teaching approaches and practices that all dance teaching requires. In fact teaching older people has challenges that require dance teachers to explore different areas relating to exercise and safe dance practice that are not the usual focus of teaching children or elite performers. My health education background has certainly proved very useful when exploring different approaches to teaching dance and exercise for specific population groups.
Reflecting on some of the aspects that I included when teaching older people makes me realise that dance teacher training generally does not necessarily explore the needs of older people learning to dance in any depth. Somehow it is assumed that dance teachers know how to teach different ages and populations such as older people when this is not actually the case. So in the following paragraphs I want to share some ideas that I hope you find useful about teaching older people to dance. In flagging up these points for consideration I am in no way attempting to cover the topic in depth. It is more about encouraging dance teachers to look with fresh eyes at how to maximise the potential benefits that teaching dance to older people has to offer.
Value the presence of your older dancers at their class or event – learning to dance can contribute to their wellbeing. Many older people experience loneliness or isolation and simply attending an activity with others can do them the world of good. Give them the opportunity to interact with others and make friends at class. Sometimes we need to realise that it is not just all about the ‘learning to dance’ aspect of the class. We need to be aware of the potential health and social benefits that simply attending class can offer. At least some of these potential benefits come from the chance to interact with others so time for this as well as dancing is important.
A fun class where people laugh, smile and enjoy what they are doing is of enormous benefit to older people. We can all find learning new things challenging and it is normal to make mistakes in the process but being able to laugh them off in a friendly, supportive environment means that dancers are more likely to feel confident to try new movements, steps and dances. Finding ways of encouraging the fun aspect of learning to dance is an essential part of dance for older people.
Giving everyone a warm welcome on arrival is a great way to begin. You want your dancers to feel valued for who they are as an individual person as well as a treasured member of the class. You also want your dancers to feel that you are approachable so that they feel able to tell you when they don’t feel well, have new medication that might affect their ability to dance or have an injury that you need to be aware of. We live through life events with the dancers we teach and individuals, as we know, have their own way of dealing with things. I have found that many older dancers have found solace in their dance class during particularly difficult times. They, like most of us, appreciate a friendly face.
As we get older we lose muscle tone and although we may not be able to fully prevent this through being active we can slow this loss of muscle tone down. By helping older people to maintain muscle tone through dancing we can also help them with improving balance and posture. With stronger muscles, better balance and posture the risk of tripping or falling can be reduced. A short warm up appropriate for the dance genre gives older people the opportunity to get their body energised and mobilise parts that they might not move day to day. Once the warm up is established I often found my dancers coming into class telling me about doing some of the warm up sequences at home. It is always encouraging to hear accounts of dancers practising at home or getting together with friends to practise.
Having goals helps us to recognise our progress. The principles of SMART goals work for older people learning to dance in a similar way that they do for younger dancers.
Specific – be specific about what the dancers need to pay attention to
Measurable – help your dancers to identify their progress from one session to the next or over a few weeks
Achievable – make sure goals are achievable so that dancers are encouraged to continue dancing
Realistic / relevant – goals should be realistic and relevant for the individual and the group
Timed – time-orientated goals offers the dancers something to work towards
and it is helpful for the teacher to extend the process goals so that SMART becomes SMARTER with:
Evaluate – how well is the goal-setting process working?
Reevaluate – revisit the evaluation regularly
I hope you find some of the issues highlighted here are useful for your own classes or teaching practice. I will from time to time post other articles about teaching dance to older people so pop back again or sign up for free notifications when new posts are added.