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Get Your Groove On

Dance to Keep Your Mind Sharp

Did you know stepping onto the dance floor is a great mental workout, too?

When she was just 13 or 14 years old philanthropist Hillie Mahoney learned the waltz from her father. She's been ballroom dancing socially ever since, but Mahoney says she's still learning the nuances—posture, for instance—especially since she recently began dancing competitively. “I thought I knew how to dance until I took classes,” she says. “It's more than dragging the feet around. There's a coordination between the brain and the feet.”

Ballroom dancing attracts a wide variety of participants, although, like Mahoney, 73, the majority is older than the tattoo-and-nose-ring set. It's easy to figure out why dancing makes great exercise—just go dancing. For hard scientific proof, in a study presented at last November's annual meeting of the American Heart Association, a group of 110 individuals who had suffered chronic heart failure were randomly assigned traditional aerobic exercise (such as cycling or walking on a treadmill), waltzing, or no exercise. After performing their assigned tasks 3 times a week for 8 weeks, the exercise group showed an oxygen consumption increase of 16 percent versus 18 percent for the waltzers, and an 18 percent increase in cardiovascular fitness, compared to 19 percent among the dancers. While the percentages between the groups are close, the dancers also reported an improvement in their emotions, compared with no improvement for the non-exercisers. And they were more likely to stick with dancing after the test. Really, how much fun is riding a stationary bike?

What Scientists Have Learned

As for a mental workout, a study published in 2003 in The New England Journal of Medicine analyzed 469 people at least 75 years old who answered a questionnaire about physical and mental activities, ranging from crossword puzzles to dancing. Within a median timeframe of 5 years, 124 had developed dementia, though the frequent dancers showed a reduced incidence. According to the study's lead, Joe Verghese, MD, assistant neurology professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, dancing was the only physical activity tied to a lower risk of dementia.

The physical exercise increases blood flow to the brain, but dancing has a social aspect, too: Fewer dancers felt depressed and lonely. In addition, dancers must memorize intricate steps and movements, master timing, and coordinate movements with a partner—the type of mental acrobatics that hold off memory loss and dementia. According to William Greenough, professor of psychology, cell and developmental biology at the University of Illinois, “Learning intricate physical skills improves subsequent learning of other skills.” Greenough adds that his significant other, Nancy Blake, is an accomplished tango dancer, and he's been trying to follow in her footsteps (or rather lead her) the last four or five years. “Very definitely the package as a whole enhances my motor skills and mental skills as well,” he says. But still, he says, Blake dances much better.

Doing the Tango, Looking Gorgeous

In another study, presented at the 2005 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience by Patricia McKinley of Montreal's McGill University, 30 people between ages 62 and 90 were chosen. Half were assigned to tango classes, while the other half walked twice a week for two hours. After 10 weeks both groups scored better on cognitive tests, yet only the tango dancers did better on a multitasking test. They also displayed improvement in balance and coordination.

Larissa Velez, who, since 1999, has been teaching ballroom dancing to a range of ages, says she notices a boost in her students' energy levels. “I see folks walk in with a slow gait,” she says. “But when swing music comes on, they dance a fast swing. It's almost like their memory gets into that rhythm.” Also, she says, ballroom dancing gives people an opportunity to feel sexy-especially the Latin dances. Greenough agrees: “There is a real grace to tango—it just looks gorgeous.” The McKinley study backs up Greenough and Velez. According to McKinley, when dance classes began the students showed up in sweats and jeans, but by the third or fourth class they were wearing makeup and jewelry.

For Hillie Mahoney, dance classes have turned out to have benefits beyond exercise and memory improvement. After leaving the studio one night she ran into friends. “They said to me, ‘Where have you been? You look wonderful,’” she recalls. “Then I realized it was because of the waltzing.”

Phil Scott is the author of "Hemingway's Hurricane."

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