In this blog, author and member of The Joy Club Maggy Pigott shares her personal experiences of starting to dance later in life, explaining why first tested the waters of dance and sharing her advice to anyone else considering giving it a go.
“You don’t stop dancing because you get old. You get old because you stop dancing”
I’m not sure who said this but it’s become my mantra. Not that I mind getting old, if lucky to live long enough, but I’d rather old age arrived later rather than sooner.
I’m 70 and dance several times a week, including Tracie’s excellent online Latin Dance at The Joy Club. What I call “pandemic dancing” – home alone, in a restricted space, watching a small screen – is a far cry from the total experience, but is still hugely enjoyable and has been a lifesaver these last two years.
“Feet’s job is to walk but their passion is dancing.” (Priyanshu Singh)
Dance entered my life relatively recently. Apart from an unsuccessful attempt at ballet as a 5-year-old, until my late 50s I only danced at parties, self-belief in my talent growing with every drink!
I discovered my passion when I joined a gym. I’m no gym bunny and attended unenthusiastically but did moderately enjoy the treadmill, as I could listen to my favourite playlists. Then, one day I heard some great Latin music and saw some women dancing.
Having a husband who sadly dislikes dancing, this looked promising and certainly more fun than walking on a piece of moving rubber going nowhere.
“We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)
With trepidation, I joined the class and loved it. Our teacher was encouraging with endless patience and very slowly I learned basic cha cha, rumba, jive, samba, and salsa. Although I took forever to remember steps, lack of skill didn’t detract from the joy which I, and all of us, felt every session.
When we tried Argentine tango, I knew I had to pursue this dance. Having searched online I found wonderful classes with people of all ages willing to dance with a beginner who rapidly became addicted to what has been called “the most profound dance in the history of the world”.
It was incredible to have found something that made me feel so good at this time of life. I grew fitter, my balance improved, and I lost over a stone. I felt happier and made new friends. But then I fell ill; everything stopped and I had to retire early from a job I loved. I missed work, colleagues, and of course, dancing, and as soon as my health allowed, I returned. Gradually my confidence improved, along with my ability to pick up steps and move in time with the music.
In my 60s I rediscovered ballet. I don’t look like a ballet dancer but one of the many joys of ageing is that you care less about what others think, or what you look like. And, as long as I didn’t look at the mirror, I believed I was Margot Fonteyn. The oldest participant in our class was an inspirational 91-year-old. Happily, ballet is becoming increasingly popular with older people, helped by the widespread availability of the Royal Academy of Dance’s Silver Swans classes.
“You dance love and you dance joy and you dance dreams.” (Gene Kelly)
Never in my wildest dreams would my younger self have imagined I would dance in front of an audience but in 2014 (aged 63), about a dozen of us performed 18th Century dances at The Banqueting House in Whitehall, l encouraged by a supportive audience of around 300. The YouTube video has had over 3,000 views!
Other chances to perform followed, including in Sadler’s Wells’ Elixir Festival, a showcase for the many older people’s dance companies and groups. I’ve danced in unusual places including hospitals, a retirement village and with an intergenerational group in a shopping centre! Probably my most exhilarating experience was about 800 of us – all ages and abilities – dancing in Trafalgar Square to a contemporary piece by the incredible choreographer Akram Khan. I was also dancing Argentine tango socially, and loved joining in a few Flash Mobs, although being filmed by tourists felt slightly surreal.
Emboldened, I auditioned and was thrilled to become a member (and later a Trustee) of a ballet-based company for dancers over 55 called Sage Dance Company. The Artistic Director was a former First Soloist of the Royal Ballet. Rehearsals were a substantial commitment and challenging for someone with relatively little dance experience, but it was immensely rewarding to master a piece and perform, for example, in Arts Festivals or small theatres, with people sometimes even paying to see us!
Over the last decade, having looked online for local opportunities at colleges, charities, dance companies and elsewhere, I’ve had a go at a variety of styles and have yet to find one I dislike. I’ve dabbled in belly dancing, hip-hop, Charleston, Disco, Flamenco and Swing and wish I had the time and energy to pursue them all. Some classes were especially for older people, others had a mix of ages, and nearly all didn’t require a partner. I’ve now got my eye on Burlesque and Musical Theatre…
“You live as long as you dance.” (Rudolph Nureyev)
Dancing features more than once in my 2019 book ‘How to Age Joyfully: Eight Steps to a Happier, Fuller Life’ as it fulfils many of the recommended steps for a better, healthier and longer life. The eight steps include physical activity, lifelong learning and making good social connections.
So impressed and surprised at the life-changing power of dancing and the joy it brought, I began researching how and why that was so. I found clear, strong and growing evidence that dancing is extremely good for us, physically, mentally and socially, whatever our age or ability. (Just one example: dancing regularly and learning new steps reduces the risk of dementia by a staggering 76%, more than any other intellectual or physical activity). I certainly intend to keep dancing so long as I can move!
I decided to spread the word so I’m writing a short, uplifting book about this unique art form and its multiple benefits. If this book ever gets published and sells any copies, half my royalties will be donated to a dance charity as a small thank you for all dancing has done for me.
“If you’ve got a heartbeat you can learn to dance.” (Darcey Bussell)
I encourage everyone to give it a try, even if it’s just moving to music you love in your kitchen – which I also do. It’s not a competition and talent is irrelevant. If you find a dance that appeals and suits you (and there will be at least one), your body, mind and soul will thank you. I’m deeply grateful to my teachers and for every month I’m still able to dance. Fortuitously, gratitude is another of the eight steps in my book to help us to live better for longer – a win:win!
So, if you have yet to discover the joy and power of dance, follow the advice of the great choreographer George Balanchine and “Don’t think about it, just do it.”
If you do, you may just find the elixir of life.
Have you ever tried dancing? What benefits has it brought you? Join the conversation in the comments section below!