06/27/2012 04:10 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2012

Belly Dancing and Laughter: How to Add Years to Your Life - or Life to Your Years

I hosted a belly dancing class at my house last Saturday night. Ten women showed up, ranging in age from 54 to 64. The teacher, who sold the class to me as a fundraiser for an arts organization, was herself just shy of 60 and has been belly dancing for over 20 years.

I looked around the room at my community of friends, each straining to make circular motions with their less-than-flexible hips while trying to keep their heads perfectly still, and tried (unsuccessfully) to stifle a giggle. Many of the women in the class were friends I have known for years, and watching them jiggling their tushes seemed like some wonderful caricature of primal scream therapy. They were letting it all hang out and feeling better for it.

While working on my own gyrations, I recalled a conference I attended about arts-based therapy programs. Apparently the combination of music, movement, new learning and community can help diminish the risk of dementia and ease symptoms of Parkinson's disease. I didn't need a double-blind study to convince me. My father, who has suffered from dementia for many years, can still sing Hava Nagila and dance a lively hora in his wheelchair. Music and movement keep him engaged.

Many of the women at my belly dancing class, all dutifully pushing their boobs out as our teacher instructed, were friends I had known for years. I knew their secrets. I smiled as Lisa waived her scarf in undulating circles and tried to sway her hips in a sultry rotation. For the past year, Lisa has been battling breast cancer while simultaneously managing the care of her disabled spouse. Despite the significant stress in her life, Lisa has an energy and joie de vivre that is infectious. I have known Carol, a former dancer, since our kids were babies. Just last year, Carol's son was diagnosed with a chronic illness. And Pat is ending her 25-year marriage and embarking on a new and challenging third act as an entrepreneur. These are women whose trials I've seen and whose friendship has sustained me during times of stress and uncertainty. We've also shared in each other's joys and triumphs.

In the swaying circle of flailing hips and thrust-out chests, we all laughed as we danced and tried to imitate the crisp and graceful movements of our teacher. What we lacked in skill and flexibility, we made up for in spirit and connection. According to ChaCha (if you don't know what ChaCha is, ask a millennial), a good laugh adds eight years to your life. If that's true, we all increased our longevity that night. And the laughter was made even sweeter by having shared each other's tears along the way.