A TV programme aired in the UK this week called ‘How to Stay Young’. It featured host Angela Rippon looking into different aspects of health to understand ways we can help slow down the aging process and keep ourselves fit and active. One aspect covered was exercise, which found an interesting conclusion:

Dance is more effective at maintaining our all-round health than other forms of exercise.

An excerpt on the programme from The Radio Times explains:

Muscle shrinkage and weakening is almost inevitable as we age (from our 30s onwards it speeds up “rapidly”), but dancing is one of the best exercises to help us stay young.

An experiment in Germany saw 20 elderly men and women dance for three hours a week, while another 20 trained in a gym. After six months the dancers saw a 15 per cent improvement in muscle strength, while the gym group had little difference. Dancing stimulates more muscles, tests your flexibility and uses your brain and your balance. It’s more “comprehensive and holistic.”

Although this programme looks at aging and the elderly specifically (and I’d like to think anti-aging shouldn’t be high on my priority list at 27), the learnings translate well for anyone trying to maintain their health. For those recovering from brain surgery – especially those looking to regain some of the balance, coordination and cognitive skills lost – dancing may just prove to be just what the Doctor (or Neurosurgeon) ordered.

Dancing and me.

For the past 11 years, I’ve channeled my passion for dance through American Tribal Style belly dance (ATS). As a teenager, and at a time when I’d turned my back on the ‘rigidity’ of ballet, my interest in ATS was ignited by a workshop from the wonderful Angela Noble of Tribe Zuza. I completely fell for the elaborate costuming, strong sense of sisterhood, the history and even the world geography connected to each move. Through the open mind of my school Youth Worker, I was lucky to find a teacher who encouraged my passion at such a young and formative age. 

Now, when most people think of belly dance they think of bright shiny colours and sparkly outfits – and while this is true of some styles, which are beautiful forms of dance, that’s not ATS. For tribal, think tattoos, drums, dreadlocks and swords…and plenty of attitude!

To understand more, there are plenty of fab ATS videos on YouTube (specifically of the style I’m learning, FatChanceBellyDance Ⓡ. Try this one for example.

Throughout the years my dancing has been ‘on and off’, what with moving around the country for University and my first job – but for the past two years I’ve been delighted to come back to my roots and be able to rejoin Angela’s classes once again. I even joined my regular weekly dancing session the night before my surgery – I couldn’t think of a better way to keep myself calm and keep my mind off what lay ahead.

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The wonder of dance.

So why is dance – and specifically ATS – so brilliant for recovery and recuperation?

Well first of all, it’s inclusive. I’m blessed to dance with women of all ages, shapes and sizes. When you’re attending an open-level class, it really is up to you to choose what you’re comfortable with and go at your own pace.

Then, there’s balance and coordination. I may be cursing myself that I can’t join in with fast spins and turns as I used to, but practising the basics like constant flow of movement, coordinating arm and leg moves and dancing to the end of your fingertips each give my brain and body a little workout and allow me to test myself just that little bit more than yesterday.

Further, the cognitive skills involved in leading and following prove to be a really neat mental workout. There is no choreography in ATS – dances are created by the lead performer making cues that others in the tribe can follow to know what’s coming next. As such, each performance is unique and as a dancer you can’t rest on your choreographed laurels or simply go through the motions. For a person like me regaining and retesting my cognitive abilities, by using my whole body ATS is better than any Nintendo-style brain training simulator.

The whole package: being a Tribal Goddess.

For one frivolous, fun and fantastic weekend a year, I retreat to Ford Castle in Northumberland with my dancing friends for two days of workshops, performances, learning, crafting, talking, giggling…basically, a weekend of food for the soul. Organised by my dance teacher Angela and her husband Mark and now in its tenth year, the Tribal Goddess weekend now attracts teachers and dancers from all over the world.

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Snapping Ford Castle on a solo wonder between workshops.

Workshops are different every year. This year I got to try dancing the Romany 9/8 rhythm and Tahitian Drum Dancing with Raheesha,  a drumming sound journey workshop with Asif Qu, a Tribal Stylisation and Exploration workshop with Philippa Moirai, a storytelling session with Sarah Riseborough and an early morning Brain Gym session with Barbara Henderson. I was also very excited to be adorned with some beautiful henna art by Pauline Qu, and loved seeing fellow dancers and teachers performing in our night-time showcases. The whole weekend was a brilliant get-away and distraction from what’s been going on these past few months.

Trying Tahitian Drum Dancing; my beautiful henna by Pauline.

Dancing full circle.

The best part of Tribal Goddess 2016 however, for me, had to be coming full circle and dancing with my teacher Angela again for the first time since the night before my surgery. I joined Angela’s Wake Up Warm Up session, and considering I started the weekend wary of my ability to cope with dance classes, we ended up giggling that my body started doing certain warm-up moves before Angela even got to say what was coming next. Having not danced for 4 months, my muscle memory surprises even me! It felt very special and profound to bring things full circle and dance again with such a beautiful, elegant teacher.

My turn to lead in Wake Up Warm Up; My teacher Angela Noble in elegant performance.

If you have a hobby which is helping your recovery, as always I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

If you’re considering taking up ATS, have a Google to find your local class (or if you get stuck, ask me and I’ll make enquiries for you 🙂 )

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