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18 Jun 2019 4:36
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  •   Home > News > International

    Australian Ballet brings dance to older Australians to boost health and wellbeing

    A group of older Australians is proving age is no limit to trying something new and creative.

    On paper, the classes sound like any other at the national ballet company.

    The students do bar exercises, listen to classical music, and learn about the importance of good posture.

    In reality, the lessons offered earlier this month by The Australian Ballet were a little more gentle than usual, and involved a lot more laughter.

    The student ballerinas were, after all, aged in their early 60s to their late 90s.

    "It was a very convivial class," said Mary Colbert, who took part in the 'Dance for Seniors' program at the Sydney Opera House.

    "Some of the women were very fit, but quite a few of us found parts of our body moving that hadn't moved in a long time," she chuckled.

    Mary was among a handful of women to participate in the pilot program aimed at improving the health and wellbeing of older people in a fun and social way.

    Two men applied to be a part of the classes, but both got the flu on the week they took place.

    "I'm not a traditional ballet goer … but I was absolutely blown away," Mary said.

    "It was awakening of the senses that wasn't just physical.

    "It transported me back to my early childhood and my ballet classes."

    For Katy McKeown, class teacher and head of education at The Australian Ballet, the experience was very moving.

    "We've done two [classes] so far and it's just been an absolutely beautiful experience," she said.

    "We walked away thinking we'd met some pretty spectacular people."

    Health benefits of dance

    The free classes, which are taught by members of The Australian Ballet's education team and provided by aged care provider NurseWatch, were designed to open up the benefits of dance to older people in the community.

    As well as giving participants the chance to dance, the classes show the history, design and behind-the-scenes workings of whatever ballet production The Australian Ballet is touring. Most recently, it was Giselle.

    The classes came about after NurseWatch founder Kate Spurway learnt that Queensland Ballet had conducted research into the wellbeing benefits of ballet for older students.

    "[Ballet] has the wellness component, it improves their fitness, and it can help to prevent falls in the home," Ms Spurway said.

    During the classes, the teachers talk about the importance of posture and muscle strength in older age.

    They also help participants to closely observe their breathing, and understand where they might be holding tension in their body, said class teacher Ms McKeown.

    "Ballet is very beneficial for older people," she explained, "to keep their muscles strong and supple, and their posture upright."

    In addition to the physical benefits, ballet allows for "gentle encouragement and fun" during exercise, she said.

    "Often there can be an under confidence that comes with getting older ... so we're supporting them physically and mentally to be able to take part."

    For student Mary, movement had always been associated with gym classes and loud music, which she enjoyed less.

    "Somehow the grace and slowness of some of the [ballet] movements really, really appealed to me," she said.

    "We were transported by the music, so we weren't so conscious about parts of out body or fitness, or lack of."

    Making new connections

    In addition to its physical elements, Ms McKeown said the program was just as much about improving participants' social wellbeing.

    "Afterwards, they go for a cup of tea and then see a matinee performance of the show they've been learning about," she said.

    "It's giving them a reason to get out and about, and have a good time — and not just be parked in front of some quiz show."

    At the class Mary attended, she reconnected with a woman she had gone to school with.

    "We all got on fantastically well," she said, "and we did not stop talking and laughing."

    "Just about all of us exchanged contacts and said we must do it again."

    Emmanuel Stamatakis, a professor of physical activity, lifestyle, and population health at Sydney University, said community programs that encouraged social and physical activity among older people were "very important".

    "We know older people, especially in aged-care homes, suffer from isolation and loneliness," he said.

    "One of the things that could be done to enhance their wellbeing is to create opportunities for social interaction ... which will create opportunities for movement."

    Professor Stamatakis co-authored a study published in 2016 that found that people over the age of 40 who participate in dancing almost halve their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.

    "Dancing seems to compare very well with walking," he said.

    "In fact, we found the protective association between dancing and cardiovascular mortality was stronger than it was with walking — not much stronger, but about five to 10 per cent better."

    Professor Stamatakis said the health benefits of dance may well have come from the intensity of the exercise, rather than the modality, but that it didn't discount the important social elements of dance classes.

    "This dancing program is a nice platform for creating all these benefits for older people," he said.

    The Dance For Seniors classes are open to the general public and will be held again in November and December in Sydney.


    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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