It’s that time of year again. The nights are drawing in and we’re flirting with the central heating switch. On the plus side, it’s au revoir to fake tanning and bienvenue to boots, opaque tights and cosy jumpers ... oh, how I’ve missed you!
Another light in the incumbent darkness is the return of the spectacle and cultural phenomenon that is Strictly Come Dancing. Incredible to think that it turns 20 next year and remains hugely popular family viewing; a staggering 6.7 million watched the launch show last month. Quite a feat at a time where so many other options are available for the public’s entertainment.
I confess to being a bit late to the Strictly party, only discovering it during series 5 when Aleisha Dixon won. That celebrities with no previous experience could learn to dance to such a high standard over just a few months blew my mind. I was particularly inspired by the “chronologically advantaged” contestants, such as a 61 year old Pamela Stephenson, who described herself as such in series ten.
So it was that in August 2012 I took myself off to my local dance school in Bromsgrove where lovely Bob Baker, teacher and former professional dancer, took me in his arms (literally) for an hour every Wednesday evening. What bliss!
As kids, my girlfriends and I loved to make up routines, inspired by Top of the Pops’ dancers Legs & Co, and the joy of synchronised movement came flooding back. In my head, I was gliding elegantly around the floor; however, it was apparent in the studio mirrors that this was a long way from reality. But the advantage of age was that I really didn’t care! I also noticed how much lighter I felt both literally and figuratively as I left the studio after my lesson. For that one hour, I could forget my stressful job and my never-ending to-do list. My complete attention was focussed on what my body was doing, trying to follow Bob’s leads, remembering to maintain my frame and not to forget to smile.
This is when I discovered flow, a term coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1970. It’s a state achieved when an activity absorbs all of our attention, we lose our reflective self-consciousness and enjoy the engagement with the activity itself, rather than the outcome of having completed it - the journey not the destination.
Regularly experiencing flow is associated with increased happiness, higher motivation, greater creativity, and reduced levels of anxiety. Mastering a new skill also boosts levels of confidence and self-esteem. In addition to the psychological benefits of dancing, there are many physical advantages:
Cardiovascular health: In 2008 a study of patients with heart failure showed greater improvements in cardiac function, breathing and quality of life in subjects who began practicing the waltz compared with those whose exercise consisted of walking or cycling.
Strength, balance & flexibility: Dancing uses muscles that may not get much action in most people’s sedentary lives. It also requires stretching, mobilisation of joints, improved posture and strengthening of core muscles. The combined effects act to slow down the onset of stiffness and waning of muscle mass (sarcopenia) and to maintain balance and coordination.
Weight control: A study in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology found dance to be as effective as cycling or running for weight management.
Memory: There is evidence that dancing can slow the onset of dementia and improve cognitive functions such as focus, mental processing, learning and decision making.
We all know exercise is vital to our health and wellbeing, yet one in three adults do less than 30 minutes per week, often because they don’t enjoy it. Choosing an activity that fills your heart with joy every time you think about it won’t feel like exercise. It will feel like YOU time. If you’ve ever fancied learning to dance, I urge you to do it. It’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on and there are so many options and an endless variety of genres, from ballet to street dance and classes for all age groups.
And don’t worry if you don’t have a partner,. I didn’t when I started, but four years later I met Tim, a fellow mature dance student and now my “friend for life” (to use a Strictly-ism). So I get swept off my feet every week by a chiselled, athletic, hilarious man 17 years my junior!
If you enjoy reading my blogs, why not join me and my team of experts for Wellbeing for Wise Women on Thursday October 26 at Stanbrook Abbey Hotel. I would love to see you there and in the meantime ... Keep Dancing!