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Monday, April 27, 2009

Dance and Aging: Celebrating the life of Charlotte Klein and Frankie Manning

A few years ago Lauren Tepper*, my good friend/yoga instructor/dance teacher/journalist, wrote this exquisite article about the affects that dance has on aging. In this article she interviews my grandmother and personal idol, Charlotte Klein, who showed me that to dance is to live (In the picture to the left, we were on the dance floor for her 80th birthday -she's one hell of a lead!!).
The article also highlights Frankie Manning, my professional dance idol and the man accredited with inventing Lindy Hop aerials in the New York swing scene in the 1930's.
These two incredible individuals have recently passed on, March 14th and April 27th, respectively. They both embodied the love of dance and continued doing it until their very last days here. My grandmother always told me that even when her legs hurt too much to walk she would always be able to dance. And that's just what she did...the week before she died we celebrated her birthday with a dance party at her bedside.
In the same manner Frankie Manning was prepared to dance with 95 women consecutively at his 95th birthday bash to represent his 95 years of age!

These two remarkable people stayed fit and healthy their entire lives by finding an activity they loved to do. They danced because they LOVED it, not because it was exercise, or to burn calories, or because their doctors told them they should lose a few pounds. I encourage you all to find that activity that you just can't live without, and do it until you drop!

In Loving Memory of Charlotte Klein and Frankie Manning....

Dance and Aging: Sashay your way to health and longevity
by Lauren Tepper

“I don’t know but I’ve been told, if you keep on dancin’ you’ll never grow old…” Steve Miller Band

I’m an addict. I can’t help it. Dance keeps me in shape, challenges my mind, enables me to express myself creatively, and connects me to others. Though some telltale gray hairs give a reality check, I still feel like a kid most of the time. Has dancing kept me young? Although it’s never that simple, dance does have a unique combination of potent anti-aging properties. Recruiting the faculties of body, mind, self-expression, and social interaction all at once, dance melds all the essential ingredients for health and longevity.

That’s all icing on the cake for me. What really keeps me hooked is that dance makes me feel more alive. Medical advances increase the average American lifespan, but doing something you feel passionate about makes a longer life worth living. People who pursue their passions have more energy and vibrancy; they almost seem to glow. If dancing floats your boat you’re in luck because it is about as close to the legendary fountain of youth as you can get with one activity.
You don’t have to dance professionally or do triple pirouettes to reap the benefits. Many people mistakenly believe they lack the physical prowess or inherent musicality required for dancing. There is also the false notion that dance is only for the young. An African proverb states, “If you can walk, you can dance.” It really is that simple.

Creative Aging

Aging is a natural process, a continuous path of growth and change that we’ve all been traveling since we were born. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that worships youth while marginalizing elders. Inactivity, isolation, frailty and disease are often assumed to be inevitable pitfalls of aging.
Fortunately, a new paradigm is emerging. Dr. Gene Cohen, Director of the Center for Aging, Health, and Humanities at George Washington University calls it Creative Aging. His research has shown that adults involved in creative arts programs stay healthier and happier longer. Dance is playing a vital role in this arena.
Kairos Dance Theatre, based in Minneapolis, MN is partnering with the National Center for Creative Aging to raise awareness about the importance of movement at all stages of life. Research has shown, for example, that children who don’t learn to crawl often have trouble reading. “If we don’t move, our brains don’t develop properly,” explains Maria Genné, Artistic Director of Kairos’ intergenerational dance company.
Kairos initiated a project in 2002 called Dancing Heart: Vital Elders Moving in Community. They encouraged frail elders at a senior center to dance, at first in chairs, then progressing to more vigorous movements. Elderly participants expressed joy and amazement at being able to re-connect with their bodies through dance. The program was so successful that some participants began performing with the company. One of the most dramatic examples, Ocie Mae Young began her dancing career at age 87! “She finished her life having a glorious time dancing and telling her life stories through movement,” recalls Maria.

Kairos is now working with patients in the mid to late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Contrary to popular beliefs, Maria finds that they are able to learn new things. “They are learning the language of dance, and I see cognitive changes happening. There’s so much we don’t know, and the arts give a possibility of learning a lot more.”
The Kairos performances are changing attitudes about aging and dance. Elders’ experiences are valued, and become part of the artistic creations. “Audiences cry during the performances, seeing the beauty of what community can be,” said Maria.

A sustaining way of life

In many cultures, dance is woven into the fabric of society. It provides a healthy lifestyle, and builds community. “For us [Latino-Americans], dancing is a way of life,” says Raúl Montoya in Greensboro, NC. “At American parties it’s mostly drinking, talking… In Latin culture if there’s no music it’s like a funeral.” Raúl overcame adversity as a child by learning to dance. “Learning salsa kept me going. It keeps your mind occupied, and it helped me to get over grief and move on in life.”

Dance brought romance again for Charlotte Klein and Sandy Saunders in Brooklyn, NY at ages 80 and 91 respectively. “We found one another through dancing,” laughs Charlotte. “We’re really having a wonderful life together, and I put it all on dance. I could have any problem on my mind, but when I hear music and I dance, it just leaves me.” “It’s very good exercise,” adds Sandy, and it provides laughter and enjoyment. “The more you laugh, the better you feel, and I always laugh when I’m dancing,” he says.

Even after two heart surgeries and bouts with cancer, Charlotte keeps coming back to her passion. “Dance is what keeps me going,” she says. Her granddaughter Elyse Sparkes, also a dancer, recalls Charlotte’s remarkable recovery. “Literally, the day after her surgery she was doing the hustle down the hospital hallway with her I.V. in one hand and my hand in her other. That is the image of what dancing can do.” Dance runs in the family. “I don’t really think about it as keeping me young,” ponders 24-year-old Elyse, “but when I’m not dancing I just don’t function as well.”

Fellow dancer Julie Mulvihill in Raleigh, NC put herself through college teaching and doing choreography, and then went on to a graduate degree in Dance. Dance has kept her feeling energetic and engaged in life. “I think that dancers stay younger longer,” she says. “I am more inclined to want to skip and play than someone my same age of a different profession.”

Research is scientifically illustrating what many dancers have discovered. Associate Professor Barbara Resnick at the University of Maryland School of Nursing linked dance to significant improvements in balance, flexibility, cardio-respiratory endurance, and bone density in her 2003 study Elders Urged to ‘Dance to Your Heart’s Content.’ “Although the long-term physical benefits of dance are certainly of value, for many older adults, the immediate psychological benefit of exercise is even more important,” she writes. Social dancing in particular, such as ballroom or line dancing “can result in increased communication, social engagement and positive feelings.”

Ballroom dancing takes center stage for keeping the mind sharp according to a study by Einstein College of Medicine published in the June 2003 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers found that of physical activities evaluated (including swimming, bicycling, and group exercises), dance was the only one associated with a lower risk of dementia. Mental activities such as doing crossword puzzles, reading, or playing board games improved brain functioning in older adults, but dance out-performed them all. The 130 avid ballroom dancers in the study reduced their risk of dementia by an amazing 76%.

Still Swingin’ at 92

Lindy Hop legend Frankie Manning in New York suggests that partner dances are the most fun and beneficial. “You’re dancing with someone, you’re holding them in your arms. Partner dancing is communication. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Lindy Hopper who wasn’t smiling,” he muses.

One of the founding fathers of Lindy Hop during Harlem’s 1930s dance renaissance, Frankie developed a signature style that included the first aerial moves ever seen on a ballroom dance floor. Recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship in 2000, Frankie is renowned for his musicality, his fast footwork, and an unwavering vigor year after year.

“Dance is a very nice exercise, but I don’t look upon it that way. It’s just something I enjoy doing,” says Frankie.
This spry 92-year-old is still swinging, with more vitality than most twenty somethings. “I don’t think if I wasn’t dancing that I would live to be this age. The movement keeps you fresh,” he says. He jokes about his “trademark,” a birthday tradition of dancing in succession with a different partner for each year of his life. Gearing up to dance with 93 consecutive women in May, now that’s something to live for!

Kick up your heels

You can get your groove on at any age, regardless of body type or physical conditioning. As Kairos Dance Theatre’s work shows, even those confined to chairs can get a lot out of dancing. “It’s something for all people,” says Frankie. “If you sit and play cards or watch TV, your bones get stiff. Dance keeps you moving and that’s much more fun.”

Maria believes, “We were all once fluent in the language of dance; we’ve just forgotten.” A good way to start is by just finding music you love and letting yourself move. “Realize there are many ways to dance,” suggests Maria. “Let go of what you thought dance was, or how you thought your body should look. Turn the lights off if you want to.” Dance alone, or with a partner or group. “It’s most important to have fun and play. That’s what’s so enlivening about dance, is that it’s also play. As long as we’re playing we’re also growing,” Maria concludes.

Call it playing, growing, or aging… it’s all part of the same process. Roget’s Thesaurus defines ‘aged’ as “brought to full flavor and richness.” Imagine if we viewed aging that way, and created conditions at every life stage to enhance our unique flavors. Like a fine wine, we can grow more complex and fulfilled as we mature, discarding the stereotype of demise and decline.
Staying physically, mentally, and socially active while doing what you love makes life richer at any age. Dance, blending all these elements, is a power-packed anti-aging elixir that’s accessible to anyone. But don’t do it for that reason. Dance because it just makes you feel more alive. Come on, you know you want to.

*Lauren Tepper can be reached at for inquiries about this article