I often wonder why my tap dance class attracts mostly women over 60. Perhaps it's the time of day, Thursday morning at 8:20, when younger women might be working or taking care of their school-aged kids. Maybe it's nostalgia for the days gone by when "hoofers," a slang term for tap dancers, were all the vogue. Think Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain. Or maybe it attracts seniors because tapping is a great workout, designed with interesting choreography, set to jazz, rock n roll, or Broadway show music -- and us boomers know how to have fun! Perhaps most importantly, this is a perfect way to get a day started and keep the over sixty brain sharp.
My teacher is a pro -- with a day job as a musical theater choreographer. She's the only one on the dance floor in her 30s. Amanda Folena is the artistic director of Broadway By The Bay, a repertoire performance company near San Francisco. She carves out time each week to teach the one-hour class. Fortunately, she's wise enough to understand that repetition is the key to success with an older group of dancers. And her keen sense of humor encourages us to laugh at ourselves and keep performances from getting too serious. At this stage in life none of us tappers are planning a career in dance which definitely takes the pressure off and makes it 100 percent fun.
Amanda believes that the over 60 "hoofer" benefits from tap dancing in several ways: "It's not just about moving, but about articulating sound... and making noise feels good, it's a release... You have to remember sequences, analyze the step when it slightly changes, like when we add-on to a time step, or do variations you also need to remember the root. It really helps stimulate brain activity and also creativity.... I think it's so great for an older group of people to feel heard, because they're making sounds with their feet... It's so positive because it reinforces what we love about living, being active, being part of a community."
When you think about the elements of dance, particularly tap, a number of benefits for the aging body, psyche and brain become apparent. And whether you are a 60+ and fundamentally healthy or 90+ and less mobile, the same elements apply. Here's a list of attributes that dance taps into, and please forgive the pun:
1. Spatial-relations training: doing a series of steps toward the right and then repeating them on the left is not so easy. You've heard of two left feet, and that's the phenomenon: hearing and seeing the step is one thing, executing it with the body is another. Plus we are all more oriented to one side of our body than the other and movement toward the non-dominant side requires more work. But it's a good workout for the brain!
2. Rhythm: think drums, and timing -- one and a two, three and a four, 5,6,7,8. Tapping unlike waltzing has a changing tempo and beat. Drum patterns -- rhythmic percussion of the sounds, would be boring if they continued in the same pattern and taps on shoes like drum sticks create the musical rhythm. But following a changing beat is a cognitive challenge.
3. Physicality: hoofing is work. Creating the tapping sound and movement also involves balance.
4. Memory: remembering steps and then sequences is like making a sentence out of phrases or a story out of paragraphs. But to repeat what you did requires focus of attention, much practice over time, and recalling cues.
5. Complexity: just when you've got your feet going the right way, add both arms and that's like patting your head while rubbing your tummy. It can be done, even with music, but it requires concentration and repeated practice, a perfect exercise for the brain and body.
6. Emotional release: brings it all together, according to Amanda. Technique in dance is not enough, "Expressing emotion through steps is the key."
If you're looking for a fun way to make music, energize your body, and stimulate your brain then consider tap dancing. The "noise" we make reminds the world that boomers want to be heard!