For obvious anecdotal proof that dancing helps you live longer, look to the stars. MGM musical sensation Cyd Charisse, who hoofed it from the stage alongside classically trained Russian ballet dancers and became a Hollywood icon dancing with Gene Kelly in “Singing in the Rain,” lived to an active and healthy 86. Kelly himself lived to a vital 84.
Philadelphia’s Nicholas Brothers, Harold and Fayard, lived into their 70s and 90s, respectively, after wowing audiences with their acrobatic feats on film and the stage for over 60 years.
More recently, Priscilla Presley, at 62, showed her stuff as the oldest woman to ever compete on Dancing with the Stars, ABC’s massively popular celebrity dance competition, while claiming the rigorous workout required of her during rehearsals for the show resulted in her losing “inches” from her waistline.
Closer to Earth, the examples can be less obvious, but just as dramatic. They might be your octogenarian great aunt and uncle who still kick it out like they did when they were teens, displaying not only the physical stamina of younger people, but the mental and psychological advantages, as well.
Or one of them might be 45-year-old Jamie Bortz, who was diagnosed with an acute arthritic condition that necessitated a full hip replacement. Now 47, Bortz credits her love of dance as both the thing that helped her get through the surgery and its painful recovery, and her incentive for working so hard to do just that.
Since childhood, dancing was not only Bortz’s passion, but also the thing that kept her body lean, flexible and fit—and her mind sharp. As an adult, she has created dedicated dance space at every home she’s lived in. During her 20s and 30s, she could be seen dancing with bands based out of her hometown of Reading or as a platform dancer at nightclubs.
But when the pain began and doctors couldn’t determine the cause, she feared she might never dance again. That fear was deepened by the determination of doctors at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s Rothman Institute, which told her the hip would have to be replaced. But hip and knee specialist and institute founder Dr. Richard Rothman suggested she might regain 90 percent of her movement and flexibility.
Even Rothman, who is also the James Edwards Professor of Orthopedic Sur-gery at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital, wasn’t prepared for the full extent of Bortz’s recovery. He was surprised to discover that, five weeks after surgery, she was doing toe touches. “He had never seen anyone recover so quickly,” Bortz says.
Bortz credits much of the success with her recovery to the flexibility she developed through dance early in life—and to the healing power of getting her body back in motion.
“I never really used it as exercise. But now that I’m getting older, I guess it was always my method of staying flexible and keeping a nice, toned body,” she says. “Staying flexible keeps you feeling young, and the dancing helps me stay flexible.”
As for Rothman himself, he extols the benefits of dance with almost evangelical zeal. For him, the focus is on “achieving immortality,” which he says requires a combination of physical and mental exertion that’s readily available in dance.
Exercise itself, he notes, is an animal drive that humans have managed to suppress by succumbing to inactivity. “You look at cats and deer and horses—they have a natural, healthy drive to use their muscles and skeletons. And it’s really only our society that has trained people to be sedentary, which is an unnatural state,” Rothman says. “You can watch 10 overweight people waiting five minutes for an elevator when they should be begging to find the stairs.”
To achieve the age-defying and life-extending benefits of exercise, Rothman recommends his four tenets: weight training (to keep muscles strong), balance (which requires training and constant practice), flexibility and stretching, and finally, cardiovascular and aerobic fitness.
“Three out of four on my list are all related to dance, so dancing is a very nice way for mature citizens to enjoy themselves and get good exercise,” he says.
The benefits of dance don’t stop there, though. Vigorous dance, whether ballroom style, Latin, hip-hop or—watch out, folks—pole dancing, also subjects the bones to strong impact, which helps keep them strong and staves off the dangers of breakage from later-in-life problems like loss of bone mass from osteoporosis, Rothman says.
Dance also provides a boost in one’s mental health through a variety of means, he says. First, there’s the inevitable weight loss that invariably makes people feel better about themselves, which very often leads to better nutrition. Combine this with the mood-boosting effects of exercise and what can result is a dramatically increased sense of well-being.
“The socialization is a bonus,” he notes. “One of the great predictors of people who live a long time is a stable social network. Dancing is a nice way to keep that going.”
Studies have also suggested that more challenging mental activities later in life can help stave off dementia or related diseases like Alzheimer’s. Rothman says he sees the positive results every day in his patients, most of whom range in age from their 60s to 80s.
“Every day, I’m struck by how many people I see who are in their later years and do better by staying active,” he says. “I sort of feel, like animals, they don’t retire and stop hunting for food. They really stay active their whole lives.”
Susan Glazer, the director of the School of Dance at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and a Main Liner from Wynnewood, is living proof of Rothman’s philosophies. A dancer since the age of 3, she says, “If my students were to read this and find out that I was significantly older than 40—or even 50—they would be shocked.”
That’s because at whatever age (she declines to give and exact number), Glazer is a portrait of what a lifetime of dance can achieve. Lean, fit and flexible, hers is a dancer’s body. And if she can’t always keep up with her significantly younger students, she can at least give them a run for their money.
For Glazer, the key benefits of a lifetime of dance include an awareness of her body, an ingrained focus on posture and breath control, and the ability to stay mentally centered.
“I have a lot of energy. I’m a medium-sized, thin woman, and I can go from really early in the morning to late at night day after day,” Glazer says. “And I think that comes from a love affair with life.”
• Academy of Ballroom & Social Dance 1 W. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore; (610) 642-2525, academyofballroomdance.com
• Aloha Style on the Main Line 102 Forest Ave., Narberth; (610) 667-HULA, mainlinehula.com
• Carousel Dance, Inc. 125 E. Swedesford Road, Wayne, (610) 687-5650
• ContempraDance 396 W. Lancaster Ave., Wayne; (610) 225-3007, contempradance.com
• Betsy Daily School of Performing Arts 800 Lancaster Ave., Berwyn; (610) 296-0474, betsydaily.com
• Dance Sport Academy 1 W. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore; (610) 642-2525, dancesportpa.com
• DanceXpress 313 Iona Ave., Narberth; (610) 668-4645, mydancexpress.com
• Arthur Murray Dance Studio 913 Montgomery Ave., Second Floor, Narberth; (610) 668-8870, arthurmurray.com
• Napoli School of Music and Dance 690 Pont Reading Road, Ardmore, (610) 658-5284; 353 Baltimore Pike, Springfield, (610) 544-2550; napolimusicanddance.com
• Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet 29 N. Narberth Ave., Narberth; (610) 664-3455, paacademyofballet.com
• Philadelphia Bellydance by Najia Havertown (610) 449-7201
• Quickstep, Inc. 49 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore; (610) 649-6655, quickstepinc.com
• The Turning Pointe Dance Centre 149 W. King St., Malvern; (610) 296-9202, theturningpointedc.com
• Wayne Ballet and Center for Dance Arts 205 W. Lancaster Ave., Wayne; (610) 688-3904, wbcda.com