Autumn is upon us, with its damp chill and vibrant colours. Females may have stepped into tights for the first time in months, which is always a sign. And the other marker for me is the return of Strictly Come Dancing to our screens, bringing us glitz and glamour with a side order of cheese, all through the cold months to Christmas (apologies for the use of the C word).
I don’t watch much on TV but I love Strictly. As the years go by, I know less and less of the so-called celebrities but I don’t care. I watch it for the dancing, especially the skill of the professional dancers, and for the bitchy judging comments. When Wimbledon fortnight is on, you always see more people inspired to get on the tennis courts. This makes me wonder why we don’t see more people taking up dancing lessons during the Strictly season, given it’s one of the most popular shows on the BBC.
Because, quite simply, they should. There have been various studies over recent years into the health benefits of regular dancing, which are even more relevant as we age. Some of the evidence and studies are cited here, but another American study this year amongst sedentary Latinos in the 65+ age group showed strong results after only four months of salsa dancing. The focus of the study was on physical health, but they want to follow this up with further research on the cognitive benefits, which come from learning of steps and routines and the challenge of dancing with different partners.
It’s worth pointing out that the benefits, on the whole, come from participation in social dance. Whilst a boogie round the kitchen, or a night out clubbing, or even a good shindig at a wedding will burn off some calories and make you feel good, these activities are rarely sustained in the same way that joining a class and going to social events are. It’s the learning and the human interaction that makes it unique, not just the bit about getting a sweat on.
There are many people (men in particular) who say they have two left feet and can’t dance, but I don’t believe this. As Mr Darcy put it, ‘any savage can dance.’ There is a dance form to suit everyone, they just need to find it. Strictly proves this time and time again, with even the most lumpy and bumpy celebs finding their feet at something. Ed Balls on Saturday night in a semi-credible waltz, when he looked like a walking wardrobe in rehearsals, illustrates my point. And pretty much all of them, whether they are any good or not, will say they’ve had one of the best experiences of their lives doing it.
On the dance website and channel danceScape, I found this, which highlights all of the benefits in one succinct piece. If reading this doesn’t make you want to take up some form of dancing, then there may be no hope. I mean, who doesn’t want to get fit, improve their flexibility, joints and balance, reduce stress & depression at the same time as getting a massive endorphin hit? Okay, you could say this about many forms of exercise, but most of it is not as much fun as dancing.
The point about it being socially satisfying is an interesting one, because while it undoubtedly is – I can vouch for having made some lovely new friends this year – it can also be a wee bit anxiety inducing as well, especially for singletons without a dance partner or for men learning to lead, as so much pressure is on them to get it right. What I have learned from my own dancing, is that eventually this fades as confidence in your ability grows, although depending on the individual, it might never disappear completely.
Here’s an example. After five months of relative sanity, the evil mood hormones hit me like a brick this week. On Tuesday, I came home from a normal day at work and succumbed to an overwhelming feeling of joylessness and self-loathing. Watching Strictly on catch up cheered me up a bit, but Wednesday was mostly spent blubbing. Good thing I was working at home or I might have seriously disturbed my colleagues. I ditched the gym, not being in the frame of mind for hardcore exercise, but forced myself out to my tango lesson in the evening. The lesson itself was unsatisfying, as I’m currently paired with a beginner leader with proximity issues.
As I’ve written before, I’ve struggled with my own body issues in tango, worrying about my size, strength and general sweatiness. My tango guru B, frequently reminds me that I’m a lovely follower and that you can’t have a good tango without sweat, but I still have hang-ups. At one point during the lesson, he called the teacher over because he thought I was putting too much weight on him. When he said this, I just smiled and shrugged, although inside I was flabbergasted and not a little stung. The teacher came over, took me for a whirl about and said, no, this is fine, which made me feel much better.
I realise that he didn’t mean to insult me, he comes across as a very polite person; what he really meant was pressure and resistance. He doesn’t yet understand about embrace and connection and sharing the dance with your partner, which the teacher tried to explain to him. We will see next week if he gets it. Discussing this with another male dancer afterwards, I was surprised and touched to discover that men sometimes felt on the verge of tears after bad tango experiences too.
The combination of my mood and that comment would normally have made me run for the hills. I had already decided I was feeling too low to stay for Tango Bar afterwards and take the risk of sitting without too many dances, which always makes me feel worse. I got in my car, fully intending to go home and wallow in my own crapulence, possibly with a large G&T in hand. It was a horrible night, dreich as we say in Scotland, perfect for cosying up on the sofa.
Instead I sat in the car and thought about the two options. Going home would mean certain gloom, whereas going in might bring gloom, but it also might bring the kind of joy I was lacking. So I abandoned my fear and went in. I had four lovely dances and went home after an hour or so, feeling so much better. Today I’m still a bit off but getting there. I am convinced that dancing last night was a healing thing to do. Instead of sitting at home brooding, I ended the day with a big smile on my face.
There are internal factors at play here. While I know I have years of learning about tango ahead of me and still make mistakes, I am getting to a standard where some of the better leaders will dance with me. And I have lost a stone so far, which gives me extra confidence. On the negative side, I am still a sweaty bastard and only two weeks ago, I had a massive dose of anxiety before going to a milonga I’d never been to before. I sat there for ages without a dance until one of the good dancers took pity on me, saying ‘you’ve been sitting there too long’. It was on the tip of my tongue to say ‘yeah, nobody puts baby in the corner’, but I restrained myself. Oh the embarrassment of being spotted as a wallflower!
Yet, all of this uncomfortableness, fear and sweat is worth it for the bliss of dancing, maybe anything worth it brings up those feelings. But it is worth it. I guarantee it, whatever kind of dancing it is. Trust me, I’m a dancer.
I leave you with two things. Firstly, a trailer for what looks like a wonderful documentary film about older ballroom dancers in sunny Govan in Glasgow, that will make you smile and want to go that club: https://vimeo.com/184690055?outro=1
And finally, because I read somewhere that it’s National Poetry Day, Sweet Dancer by WB Yeats:
The girl goes dancing there
On the leaf-sown, new-mown, smooth
Grass plot of the garden;
Escaped from bitter youth,
Escaped out of her crowd,
Or out of her black cloud.
Ah, dancer, ah, sweet dancer!
If strange men come from the house
To lead her away, do not say
That she is happy being crazy;
Lead them gently astray;
Let her finish her dance,
Let her finish her dance.
Ah, dancer, ah, sweet dancer!
Until next time, get dancing.