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Can We Have This Dance?

Weddings shouldn't be the only time different generations join in and let go

Can We Have This Dance?

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Keep young and beautiful through robust intergenerational relationships.

There's nothing I love more than the dance floor at a wedding.

Where else can you find aunts and grandpas and stepbrothers alongside best friends and baby cousins and quirky coworkers? It's a swath of related and unrelated people of all ages. And everyone — regardless of ability or initial comfort level — is invited to join in and let go.

There are few places like it, at least in our country. Summer block parties come to mind, or perhaps the occasional public concert. But even in those settings, people often choose to fold out their canvas chairs near the people they know — and just watch.

Our society has many issues to address, but I wonder if we could make some headway by dedicating spaces for different people and different generations to come together through dance.

That's exactly what KAIROS Alive! does. The Minnesota-based dance company organizes Intergenerational Dance Halls that are open to everyone. They welcome people who are young, old and somewhere in between; people who use strollers, walkers and wheelchairs; beginners, professionals and even people who say they can't dance.

I recently had the opportunity to experience my first Intergenerational Dance Hall. Johnstown Concert Ballet in Johnstown, Pa., the next town over from where my grandparents lived, brought in KAIROS Alive! founder Maria Genné and her team for a three-day residency. The series of workshops culminated with the Intergenerational Dance Hall.

As a live band played, Maria led about 50 of us through dances that were progressively more challenging. We started out walking in a circle to the beat, then we danced in pairs with some folks standing and others sitting. By the end, we all moved through a Soul Train line, meeting new partners each pass.

Maria engaged the group in conversation, too: "Gene Kelly had a dance studio here, didn't he?" He did. "Did anyone ever meet him or dance with him?" A few had.

It wasn't perfect. At first, a group of experienced ballroom dancers took offense when they realized we wouldn't be doing the waltz or the cha-cha that night. They came ready to show their skill and rightfully so. They were terrific dancers.

But that's not the point, and they came to understand that. The point is inclusion and connection for older adults and people of all ages. Maria emphasized the positive health impacts of this kind of creative, participatory arts programming. Studies suggest it's associated with a host of benefits, such as fewer falls, decreases in medication and even lower risks of dementia.

It's the coming together part, though — that wedding dance floor feeling — that grabs you and makes it clear why this is so needed, especially right now in this divided time.

"I thought this was going to be a performance," one woman told me at the end of a dance session at her care facility in downtown Johnstown. I bent down next to her wheelchair and grabbed her hand. We smiled. "I was planning to leave after a while. I'm glad I didn't."

Laura Hahn is a gerontologist committed to intergenerational solidarity and age-friendly communities.