Far older than most of the regulars at his weekly South Bay swing-dancing class, the World War II veteran invariably shuffles in, sidles up to his instructor and unwittingly gives voice to a scientific truth: “I’m here for my anti-aging therapy and happiness treatment.”
Dancing has long been lauded as a great physical workout, yet research has increasingly shown that social dancing, such as swing, a lively, improvisational style that requires rapid-fire decision-making in concert with a partner, is also beneficial to both mind and spirit.
Doctors have prescribed her dance classes for patients dealing with depression, and many students have recovered from “horrible divorces” while learning the free-spirited Lindy Hop or the jive on her dance floor, says Rusty Frank, who has taught swing dancing since 1988 at her Lindy by the Sea school in El Segundo.
Engineering students at Northwestern University in Illinois are encouraged to swing dance in Whole Body Thinking, a class aimed at helping science majors, who are known for relying on the analytical left side of the brain, to flex their creative right side. At Cal State Long Beach, students who are thinking about dropping out have been advised to take social dance classes before making the decision.
“The turnaround for them is night and day. They’re not depressed anymore,” says Phil Martin, a dance instructor at Long Beach since 1983. “One student wound up taking my class every semester … and told me that his grades had gone from Cs and Ds to A’s and Bs.”
Dancing also strengthens the immune system and increases the ability to deal with stress, says Martin, who conducts research on the exercise benefits of dance.
“Dancing simply makes you happy,” Martin says. “It’s a lifelong mood enhancer.”
The mental rigor required of social dancing can also “make you smarter,” according to Richard Powers, a member of Stanford University’s dance faculty.
“Social dancing such as swing requires constant, split-second decision-making. Because the brain has to work so much, it is not necessarily retracing the same neural pathways but instead using new ones,” which improves memory, Powers says.
Growing evidence that dancing tones the brain as well as the body includes a landmark 2003 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that came to a striking conclusion: Frequent dancing that challenges the mind can ward off dementia.
The subjects of the study were at least 75 years old and reported engaging in other physical activities such as bicycling and swimming. But dancing was the only one to offer protection against dementia, reducing the risk of onset by 76%, according to Powers.
Because swing dancers must choreograph on the spot, the fast-paced dance routines are also a mental workout, says Erin Stevens, who has co-owned the Pasadena Ballroom Dance Assn. with her sister since 1983. Bill Nye, the Emmy-winning “science guy” is a regular at the group’s Saturday night swing dances with live music.
“When you are learning to lead and follow, there is so much more going on. You are using your brain paths,” Stevens says. “You are thinking the entire time, ‘I lean here, I move there.’”
The mental and physical agility required by swing dancing results in “spontaneous combustion on the dance floor,” says Frank. “You are trying to reflect what’s going on with the music and communicate with your partner. There’s a lot of brain activity for both dancers.”
As a group, swing dancers tend to be alert and upbeat, according to Frank. Even the elderly veteran who shows up every week “hardly moves, twirls a girl, maybe,” yet still obtains a psychic lift from the pursuit, she says.
For Dan Carper, a contractor who turned to social dancing after his divorce more than a decade ago, it’s “like pushing the reset button.”
“No matter how hard your day is, five or 10 minutes after you’ve started dancing, you leave everything behind. If I am dancing, I am happier and things in my life are going better,” says Carper, 58, of Tujunga. “There’s definitely a mind-body connection. When you mesh with someone, it’s as if you are one.”
Writer Chrissy Orloff commutes from her home in Marina del Rey to Pasadena four times a week to take swing and other dance classes with her boyfriend.
“We are somewhat addicted,” said Orloff. “You get physically tired but mentally euphoric. Everyone is smiling as if they are at their senior prom. It is so joyous and so much fun. It’s hard to be in a bad mood when you are dancing.”