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Young at Heart
Ballroom dancing keeps seniors on their toes — literally and figuratively.

Photo by David Szymanski

Sept. 2017

Drew Brooks had endured first the loss of his daughter and later his wife before he found joy on the dance floor — and, eventually, new love.

“I lost my wife in ’06,” he says. “A year after she was gone, I decided to take ballroom lessons and just get out there and start doing things. I was 51.”

He began lessons on his own and shortly thereafter met Karen, whose husband had died earlier in 2007. “I found out about group lessons near my house and asked her if she’d like to take (them),” he says.

“I said, ‘I would love to twinkle my toes with you,’” Karen says with a smile in her voice.

The two started dancing together in January 2008, and by November the now Mr. and Mrs. Brooks were twirling at their wedding in a routine Drew choreographed based on steps they learned. “We were very beginner back then,” Drew says.

Since then, they’ve gotten a lot of practice. They take lessons twice a week through the New Berlin Recreation Department and with Cathy Binko-DeRaimo, owner of Brookfield Ballroom. They also participate in a social dance most Sundays. “There have been occasions where we’ve put in 10 hours of floor time over a four-day period,” says Drew, adding that he installed a floor in their basement so they could have enough room to dance unimpeded by furniture.

“What I find really refreshing in ballroom (dancing is) it isn’t just waltz and fox trot — those are the smooths. Then you have Latins, which are really fun and spicy. It’s great exercise,” Karen says.

In fact, ballroom dancing offers excellent cardiovascular benefits as well as a host of other advantages that keep you feeling healthy and young. “As people age, there’s a tendency to have this chronic stress response in the body, where cortisol becomes dominant. Research is showing that one of the best ways to curb a constant onset of a fight-or-flight response, even if it’s low-grade, is through a moderate type of physical activity,” says Joanna Totten, a physical therapist at

ProHealth Care. “It will balance that cortisol response with your happy hormones, which are your GABA and serotonin.” That leads to better sleep, weight management and balanced blood sugar, she explains.

Ballroom dancing also helps counter a slumped position as we age. “You develop (muscles) that keep your rib cage up,” Binko-DeRaimo says. “You start to develop a really great frame, or posture, because of that, (and) you create a really great core.”

Totten, who has taken ballroom dancing classes herself, says the dancing posture practiced enables internal organs to function properly, promotes healthy movement of the hips and knees, and minimizes abnormal stress to joints.

An improved posture helped Karen too. As a hairdresser, she stands for long periods and used to see a chiropractor to relieve her lower-back pain. After she began dancing regularly, her back pain disappeared.

Additionally, ballroom dancing diminishes the risk of falling, the No. 1 cause of injury and death among older adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Totten says you use your eyes, joints and vestibular system in your inner ear to maintain balance. “Ballroom dancing uses all three, and when all three are engaged you’re going to get the highest level of balance training,” she says.

She adds that the advanced step work, including crossover steps, teaches your body to take long, quick, accurate steps and helps you maintain the ability to pivot on your toe. “When you’re practicing these right-left, quick-step transfers, your brain gets very efficient at doing that and that’s exactly what you need to catch yourself if you’ve lost your center of gravity,” she says.

As it happens, learning dance steps is also a great cognitive exercise. “Initially, when an individual is learning dance steps, they are running through multiple neural synapses,” Totten says. “Through practice and repetition, your brain starts to develop better neural pathways and there’s only one synapse. I equate that to taking a trip and having multiple layovers or taking a direct flight.”

“You have to use different parts of your brain,” Binko-DeRaimo says of dancing. “You have kinesthetic learning, rational thinking, emotional thinking, musicality. And then you work with a partner.” When you dance with different partners, you have to make split-second decisions, which keeps your mind alert, she says.

“The mental exercise is the tougher part,” Drew concedes. “I have to know what I’m doing at the moment, but to stay on time, I’ve got to be thinking ahead, and that is tough to learn.”

Yet learning new skills is key to staying sharp as you age. According to a study of seniors published in the New England Journal of Medicine, dancing frequently reduced the risk of dementia by 76 percent, more than any other cognitive or physical activity included in the report. Ballroom dancing is unique in that you can learn a number of dances and then constantly adjust your skills for new songs, partners and flourishes.

In the end, the Brookses dance because they love it. “When I’m feeling a little down and we get dancing, (then) I feel great,” Drew says. “There’s an immediate change in how I feel.”


This story ran in the Sept. 2017 issue of: