Boomers just love to dance

Thursday night at Randolph Dance Theatre in downtown Toronto and the room is so hot steam has clouded the mirrors. Forth dancing hopefuls are going through their paces, huffing and puffing through a combination of pirouettes and jump slides to a funky beat pulsing out of the overhead speakers.“Okay, guys, let’s call it a night.”Instructor George Randolph, who’s leading this beginner’s jazz dance class, has decided they’ve had enough torture.  He’s about to push the stop button on the CD player when a voice cries out: “No, one more time.”

Looking down the row of sweaty bodies, his eyes slide past the 18 and 20-year-olds to a middle-aged woman who’s just become a grandmother for the second time. On her face is the look of a tiger just before the kill. He shrugs and jacks the volume. As he’s come to learn, you can’t stop a 55-year-old who’s burning to dance.

Determined boomers
“The boomers are the ones with the most determination. There’s more of a commitment because all of a sudden the body doesn’t move like it used to, so regaining that sense of youth is part of the urgency,” says Randolph, towelling himself after class. &t;p>

Staying young or just keeping in shape is driving baby boomers in unprecedented numbers to dance schools across the nation.  Randolph’s seen a 20 per cent increase in boomer enrollment at his school over the last six years.

Meghan Blades, who teaches aging boomers classical dance through Calgary’s School of Alberta Ballet, estimates that attendance in her adult classes has nearly tripled over the last few years. The increased numbers have led Alberta Ballet to create a program of evening classes that cater specifically to boomer needs. 

“We’re calling them ballet workouts,” says Blades.  “The emphasis is less on performing, more on strengthening.  It makes the classes more accessible to more people.”

All dance types
Ballet and jazz are not the only dance styles for exercising aging Canadians.  Many have re-discovered ballroom and swing, the dance crazes of their youth. Some are turning to the far more exotic bellydance.  Others are embracing line dancing and modern dance as a means of rejuvenating both body and soul.

Brent Lott, who teaches modern dance to adults at the School of Winnipeg Contemporary Dancers, says that boomers now account for more than half of his students. They come to him for fitness and to nurture the Ginger Rogers or Fred Astaire within. 

“For many of my students, exercise is often the secondary motivation. Most have very stressful jobs.  When they come to me, they’re trying to get back in touch with their bodies. They want to be creative -fulfill fantasies they once had about being a dancer. They’ve ignored that part of themselves for a major part of their lives. They’re just exploring it now,” says Lott.

Wanted to dance
Jaye Rosen had always wanted to be a dancer.  But she became a health professional instead and today works in the prenatal education department of Toronto’s Women College Hospital.  She turned 50 two years ago, and it was a shock. 

“It sounds so grown up,” she says.  “And I don’t feel that I’m there yet.”

In an effort to stop the clock-and revisit her dancing dreams-she enrolled in tap dance classes at Toronto’s Pollock Dance Studio, where she now studies twice a week. 

“I have a friend my age who goes to the gym and has a personal trainer,” she says.  “I can’t see myself doing that.  Dancing just seemed a better workout choice.”

Flexibility, strength
Working in a hospital, she knows that exercise helps aging bodies stay flexible and strong. She says that tapping, because of its vigorous toe-heel movements, increases red blood cells-but that’s not why she’s doing it. 

“I think the pleasure of dancing for me is that I’m exercising but it’s so much fun, it doesn’t feel like a workout.”

Rosen had looked into other forms of dance but chose tap because of its accessibility. “I don’t think you need to be as limber for tap as for other dance forms like ballet or modern, where you need a greater degree of stretch.  You just need a sense of rhythm”-though she’s not even sure she has that: “But I’ve gone from pre-novice to novice and now I’m at a stage where I can actually do the steps without falling down.”

Rosen laughs, which is also why she’s turned to dance in her later life: to have a good time.  “You can’t be depressed when you’re tapping,” she says. “Even on bad days I make myself go to class, because I know that for one hour I will be smiling.”

Bellydance is gentle
About 3,000 miles away on Canada’s West Coast, bellydance instructor Nan Lehto attracts boomers who are looking for a dance form that can both heal and loosen their aging bodies. 

“It’s a really gentle exercise,” Lehto says. “It offers something for everyone-all body types and any age.  All the great bellydancers in Egypt are women in their 50s. So that gives you an idea of how respectful bellydance is of older bodies.”

Lehto, a 58-year old native of Scotland with nary a drop of Arab blood in her wiry body, first turned to bellydance 20 years ago as a form of physical therapy.  An accident had left her with a fused spine, and her doctor told her that she’d have to exercise every day of her life to keep her back limber. She turned to bellydance because its soft, undulating movements allowed her to extend her range of motion without adding stress or injury to any other part of her body. 

“I hate to exercise,” she confesses. “But dancing makes me feel good. And as long as I’m moving this way, I have absolutely no trouble with my back.  If I miss a few days, I feel myself seizing up.”

In her studio in the Vancouver suburb of Coquitlam, Lehto teaches other accident victims (some as old as 80) who find that bellydance improves their posture while toning the entire body. An added bonus is the dance’s sensual charm. 

Builds confidence
“I think it’s very feminizing,” says the mother of two grown daughters, both of whom have followed in her footsteps. “First of all, you are holding yourself well. You feel regal. You stand proud. You’re making graceful hand gestures and wearing swishy costumes. You feel on top of the world.”

Perhaps more important than fitness, dancing represents a chance to build friendships and self-esteem.  Winnipeg’s Brent Lott says that, for some of his older students, his modern dance classes are like therapy. 

“They build confidence. I’ve watched people work through many issues in my classes: body image, health, relationships-you name it.” he says.