‘Get started and don’t stop’

Shake, shimmy and reap the benefits, dancers say

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

Nancy O’Donnell and Beryl Krueger like dancing to the beat of a Middle Eastern drum.

“It helps me keep fit and maintain a healthy weight,” said Krueger, who takes belly dance classes at Amira Dance Productions (ADP), 1702 W. Douglas. “It also gives me a good social life” thanks to dinners, birthday parties and more with fellow students.

O’Donnell, who turns 78 in March, agreed. “Physically, mentally and socially, I’m better off because of dancing.”

The two are among almost 70 ADP dancers who will perform dance numbers ranging from belly dance, hula hooping, Polynesian, East Indian and other styles in the studio’s family-friendly 45th annual show Saturday, March 7, at the Crown Uptown Theatre. About one-third of ADP’s students are over the age of 55, according to studio co-owner Patricia Baab, 71. 

While the studio attracts dancers as young as 16, it’s not unusual for older women, like Krueger and O’Donnell, to start taking belly dance classes for various reasons at the studio, which was founded in 1974, Baab said. Some choose just to take classes, but many become performers, dressing up in colorful and bejeweled costumes.

A fellow British ex-patriate invited Krueger to join her in a dance class to help her get over a breakup seven years ago, while O’Donnell’s daughter suggested that she try a dance class that doesn’t require a partner to stay physically fit. O’Donnell put on her first hip scarf — a colorful sash, often embellished with beads, coins and fringe, that is tied around the dancer’s hips to accentuate physical movements — when she was 63.

They haven’t stopped shimmying since.

Multiple studies have shown that dance has several health benefits, including improving strength, endurance, balance and what’s called functional fitness among older adults. Some studies have shown it helps minimize symptoms of depression. One often-cited study by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York showed that out of 11 leisure activities, only dance regularly reduced the risk of dementia in aging adults. 

As a former belly dance teacher and continuing student, I can attest to seeing those physical and mental benefits among fellow dancers plus more, including gaining self-confidence and an appreciation for cultural history and traditions. I’ve formed friendships with women of all ages and backgrounds and have even traveled with some to Egypt and Turkey. Fellow dancers helped teach me to sew.

Learning and recalling new steps, dance moves and combinations are good mental challenges, said O’Donnell, an occupational therapist. 

“If I make a mistake on stage, I just smile and continue moving,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell, who also takes belly dance classes in Rose Hill, is one of the most active students at Amira Dance Productions, taking at least five different classes each week. 

Her teachers, particularly in the more challenging East Indian classes, modify dance movements for any physical limitations, she said.

For Krueger, she’d rather be dancing than going to a gym. “I hate the gym with a passion,” she said. But she likes to share that she lost 20 pounds after she started dance classes.

Both said they enjoy another creative aspect of their dance classes — that of making costumes.

O’Donnell said she tells others interested in belly dance to not look at their birthdate or worry about their size or shape. 

“Get started and then don’t stop,” she advised. 

“It’s also important for people to realize you don’t have to show your belly,” she added. 

Tickets for the March 7 dance show are $25 in advance and $30 at the door for adults, $10 for children 12 and younger and can be purchased in person during the Crown Uptown box office hours or online at crownuptown.com. 

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