The stroke left Keith with partial loss of sight in both of his eyes. Unable to read and write, his memory was so badly affected he couldn’t even remember how to make a cup of tea. Like many stroke victims, he also struggled with co-ordination and balance and found walking difficult.
“I’ve been working hard to improve my health and fitness since I had the stroke,” Keith says. “Last November I heard about the line dancing classes and thought they might help my co-ordination, memory and fitness in general.
“Because of the stroke, it took me a lot longer to settle in and learn the moves. It’s really been worth the wait, though, because I’m feeling the benefits now. My sugar levels and blood pressure are now near perfect and I just feel so much better, physically and mentally after a line dancing session.”
Putting their best foot forward
Keith is one of an enthusiastic band of dancers who put their best foot forward at 11am every Thursday morning at Age UK Merton’s Elmwood Centre in Mitcham. Since it began in June 2021, the line dancing group has grown to almost 20. Dancers are aged from their early sixties through to the astonishingly nimble 83-year-old Sheila Madigan, a retired city secretary.
Line dancing usually conjures up images of Stetsons and Country and Western hoedowns. Dancers at the Elmwood Centre, though, are much more likely to be moving to fast-paced Latin tunes or shaking a leg to high-energy beats by Kylie Minogue. The sessions embrace a wide range of styles and rhythms which have been adapted for dancing in a line.
You have to think all the time when you are dancing because of the variety of rhythms and tempos.”Judith Caswell, dance teacher
Dance teacher Judith Caswell, who leads the group, has been putting dancers through their paces across South London for over 25 years. She says that the concentration and co-ordination required in dance sequences – some have up to 62 separate steps – are ideal for maintaining fitness and stimulating the brain. By contrast, most conventional ‘exercise’ can be repetitive and solitary.
“People have to think about what they are doing all the time when they are dancing,” She explains. “The variety of rhythms and tempos means you are always being challenged which keeps your brain active as well as your body.
My dad went to dances until he was 92
“There are so many health benefits to dancing. My whole family used to go out to Tea Dances on Tuesday afternoons and my dad was still going to dances until a few days before he died, aged 92!”
When Caroline Muldoon, the centre manager, first launched the dances it was both the social as much as the health benefits of dancing that appealed to her. By summer last year, lockdown and social distancing meant many older people were living more isolated lives, she says. This had a big impact on people’s mental and physical health.
Although the centre had previously run ballroom dancing sessions, numbers had started to drop off steeply even before the pandemic. But when Judith ran a ‘taster’ session in line dancing there was such an enthusiastic response that it swiftly became a regular weekly feature.
“Music and dancing is such a great leveller and it brings people together,” Caroline says. “Everyone has their favourite dances and it’s an affordable way for people to get together and also tap into other social events that we offer. With line dancing, you have all the fun of ballroom dancing but without having to wait for someone to ask you to dance.
Building up your strength
“A lot of people start with chair-based exercises to build up their strength before they start dancing. We also suggest to people that they check with their GPs to be on the safe side”
Sheila Madigan, 83, is one of the group’s oldest members and has been line dancing for many years at classes run by Judith Caswell at other venues. “Line dancing appeals to people because they can be part of a big, happy group,” she says. “I always feel mentally sharper and physically better after dancing. It’s such a sociable way to spend your time – I never get depressed.”
Dancing keeps me in good shape and lowers my hypertension. After just four weeks, I’m feeling the benefits.”George Clarke
George Clarke, 76, is a relative newcomer to the group but after just four weeks is already feeling the benefits. “It’s like an exercise class but much more enjoyable,” he says. “It keeps me in good shape and lowers my hypertension. Afterwards, I feel energetic and set up for the rest of the day. It would be good to see more men here as they’d really feel the benefit but I think perhaps they are a bit shy about getting on the dance floor.”
The line dancing classes are part of a wide range of affordable activities that Age UK Merton runs for older people in the borough. Over the last few months, there has been more focus on events planned for men in mind with trips to AFC Wimbledon and Wimbledon Brewery as well as a huge variety of ongoing regular events such as craft and lunch clubs.
“The line dancing classes are full of fun and laughter,” says Caroline. “I say to people ‘Come on down and give it ago. You’ve nothing to lose and everything to gain!”