Dancing for life

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With the increasing popularity of dance classes for adults, Michelle Dursun finds out about the life affirming benefits for both teachers and participants.

Kalman Warhaft (left) teaching a class at the Melbourne Institute of Dance. Photo: Jason Lam.
Kalman Warhaft (left) teaching a class at the Melbourne Institute of Dance. Photo: Jason Lam.

What is the recipe for a healthy life? Could dance hold the answer to physical, mental and psychological wellness from age two to age 102? Dance as an investment in lifelong wellbeing requires the rejection of outdated, ageist attitudes that rob individuals of the chance to experience the life affirming physical and mental health benefits that dance provides.

Defying ageist attitudes

In its “Global Report on Ageism” (2021), the United Nations stated that ageism is a global challenge. The dance world is leading the charge to these defy ageist attitudes for the benefit of all. Throughout Australia, the number of adult dance classes, for all age groups, is slowly expanding. Studio dance teachers are including adult classes in their timetables. In addition, schools dedicated solely to adult pupils are also growing in number. Particularly of note are the increasing options for older adults, which require different teacher specialisation, skills and knowledge to classes for younger adults. In addition, professional dance companies are joining the charge, providing inclusive, community dance classes, some specifically targeted to participants with mobility and cognitive challenges such as multiple sclerosis; dementia; Parkinson’s; arthritis; and brain injuries.

Dance for health

In line with the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science’s (IADMS) 2019 Dance for Health initiative, there is a growing field of scientific research into the benefits of dance (along with music, movement and creative engagement) on health, wellbeing and quality of life. Evidence is also amassing about the positive impact of dance on a range of health issues, due in part, the IADMS reports, to the capacity of dance to “build cognitive reserve and stimulate new synaptic connections”.

The Dance for Health initiative is specifically focused on promoting research and dance practice as well as cultivating medical, scientific and artistic excellence in the field of dance for health. Its aim is to validate dance as a life-long partner for health, with the capacity to “deliver holistic and evidence-based activities for the individual to manage and adapt to physical, mental and social health challenges”.

The IADMS reports that it is the "not therapy" status of Dance for Health programs that is a significant factor in their success. This approach enhances engagement and retention of participants and contributes to long term improvements in their health. Inclusive adult dance classes that promote joy, creativity, connection and support are as much a social activity as they are good for health. One thing is clear: engagement in such classes is increasing, with older Australians realising the many benefits of participating in dance classes.

Adult dancers from Here's to Life in Brisbane. Photo: BWP Studios.
Adult dancers from Here's to Life in Brisbane. Photo: BWP Studios.

Participant benefits

Sue Harvey has led a not-for-profit community dance organisation, Here’s to Life, in Brisbane since 2003. Her classes include Jazz with Pizzazz, Magical Tap and Buff Bones as well as drumming, art and singing. Harvey says that all of her participants are over 40 years of age, with the majority in the 60 to 70 year age group, and a few in their 80s and nineties. She says that dance improves memory, spatial orientation and blood flow, and adds that regular physical activity also produces endorphins that reduce stress and anxiety, boost self-esteem and improve the ability to sleep. Classes at Here’s to Life are so much fun, she says, that participants are “unaware of how much work their minds and bodies have been undertaking”.   

Another establishment is RIPE Dance, which Gail Hewton has been running in Noosa in Queensland since 2012 and has participants aged 57 to 97 years of age. Hewton  offers an eclectic range of dance styles including jazz and contemporary, with an emphasis on falls prevention and social connection. Some of these classes are seated for those with mobility and balance issues.

Over the past 11 years Hewton has noted “numerous physical, cognitive, emotional and social benefits for older adults” of dance. Her observations areall  supported by a growing body of science and research. Among these benefits are improvements in posture, balance, strength and co-ordination as well as confidence and the social connections the classes can provide. Some of these benefits are specific to a participant’s stage in life, as demonstrated by the case of one 92-year-old dancer telling Hewton after class: “When my husband died, I didn’t think I had anything to live for, but now I do”.

Another student of hers, at 82, attends three classes a week because, as she told Hewton, “Coming to dance is a cuddle I give to myself”.

Students at Elance Adult Ballet School in Melbourne. Photo: Jacinta Christos.
Students at Elance Adult Ballet School in Melbourne. Photo: Jacinta Christos.

Another teacher of adults is Dianne Harrison, who established Elancé Adult Ballet School in Melbourne in 2002 as a “calling” to give the gift of ballet to others and make a positive difference in people's lives. Her school offers 13 different levels of classical ballet classes. She says that in addition to the physical benefits, the connections that students make when engaging with each other in an artistic and athletic pursuits is an important element of the experience. “Our studios provide the space where these connections are formed and celebrated” she says, adding that, “adults thrive when they are part of a like-minded community”.      

At Melbourne Institute of Dance, adult dance classes include ballet classes as well as contemporary and character dance classes across many different ability levels. Director Kalman Warhaft says that participants range in age from 16 years to 86 years. The main benefit for students, he says, is that they get to “feel the love": "the love of moving; the love of listening and feeling the music; the love of being around like-minded people working to create art, as well as the love of accomplishment from being challenged”.

Another dimension is the sense of “escapism” that students experience. He says: “With the busy and intense world that we live in, our dance classes allow students to attend a safe space where they are allowed to transcend into a world of dance." As one of his male adult dance participants has told him, “Dance makes me feel strong. It also incorporates gracefulness that I don’t normally get to experience as a software developer in my day-to-day job."   

Gail Hewton demonstrating for her RIPE dance mobility class at her school in Noosa, Qld. Photo by Barry Alsop.
Gail Hewton demonstrating for her RIPE dance mobility class at her school in Noosa, Qld. Photo by Barry Alsop.

Teacher benefits

Not only the participants, but the teachers benefit from adult classes. It can be inspirational to witness the dedication, passion and love that adults bring to class. “I finish a class with so much humility and satisfaction that it is hard to describe,” Harvey says.

This sense of appreciation is shared by Harrison, who says working with older dancers is enriching. For her, engaging with people from all walks of life “deepens my compassion, influences by beliefs and broadens my view of the world”.

"Facilitating dance for older people is absolutely joyous”, agrees Hewton, and the most rewarding teaching experience she has had in over 40 years of teaching dance. In addition to keeping herself physically active, she says teaching dance strengthens her own mental health and resilience. Another benefit is that it is financially rewarding. All Hewton's classes are full, with most participants attending regularly, year after year. She says: “Older people are loyal, reliable, fun and have fabulous stories to share from their big lives."      

For Warhaft, the attendance of adult dancers who choose to be there and who bring such passion and joy to the studio “creates a wonderful atmosphere to work and dance in”. Adults are “generally better at being self-directed learners, taking greater responsibility for the ‘why’ and ‘how’ things are done”. This keeps him mentally active and forces him to think of new ways to explain things, making him a better teacher. 


For teachers considering offering adult dance classes, a number of factors should be considered. These include ensuring that you have an understanding of the challenges of working with more mature bodies. A class should be a good mind and body workout, while also employing modifying moves to suit varying mobility. Harrison emphasises the need to ensure “appropriateness of content taught and a better understanding of what the adult body can realistically and safely achieve”.     

Hewton says that dance artists, teachers and practitioners working with older adults, “need specific professional development and training to upskill and gain vital knowledge” to understand the natural biological and physiological changes that occur during the ageing process as well as the “psychological, behavioural and social changes and health conditions that may occur”. 

Changing mentality

One of the biggest barriers to engagement in adult dance classes is overcoming ageist attitudes to dance. Recent television shows such as the ABC’s Keep on Dancing as well as the increasing community dance classes offered by professional dance companies and dance studios around Australia are slowly beginning to change the stereotype that dance is only for the young. As Warhaft says: “dance is an essential and vital part of human evolution, one of our primal instincts”. He says that the more people age, the more important their accessibility to the benefits of dance.

Despite this, Hewton says “ageism is still rife and not just in the profession, older people are often ageist against themselves, thinking dance is beyond them”. Harvey agrees, saying, “Our members often say that at first their families have some qualms about them participating, but once they see the benefits – the confidence gained, the friendships made and how energised they are, they are inspired by them”.

Ageist stereotypes are unhelpful when they prohibit or limit participants who potentially have the most to gain, such as those with mobility issues.

It seems that a regular adult dance class, or three, might really be the answer to ageing well. At the very least, adult dance classes provide the opportunity to have some fun; get some exercise; socialise and provide the opportunity for creative fulfilment.

What is not to love about that?  

This article was originally published in the Oct/Nov/Dec 2023 issue of Dance Australia. Print is for keeps! Buy on-line here or subscribe here.


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