Too Old to Dance

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I recently ran into a former dance acquaintance at a family friend’s holiday party.  She and I had always been cordial, but we weren’t especially close, so we’d lost touch after she stopped salsa dancing a couple of years ago.

After a few minutes of random small talk, she asked the question I knew was coming:  “So … are you still dancing?”  I replied, “Absolutely.  I’m still dancing, performing, and I even teach a class once a week.” After a bit of hesitation, she remarked, “Wow.  I guess that’s why you’re in such great shape…but I thought you would have outgrown all of that by now.”  I gave her my brightest smile, replied, “I guess not,” and then moved on to another topic of conversation.

As an avid Salsa and Casino dancer in her late forties, I’m no stranger to these kinds of conversations about my active involvement in dancing.  While 40 may be considered “the new 30” in many aspects of life, it seems as if 40 is “the new 80” in the youth-obsessed world of linear Salsa dancing.  I’ve been dancing for nearly a decade, and I can honestly say that I’m a much better and more confident dancer than I was 10 years ago.  I definitely haven’t “outgrown” Salsa dancing, but there’s no doubt that dancing over the age of 40 presents certain challenges as well as benefits.

Over 40 on the Floor

When I go out Salsa dancing in my local community, I don’t have much difficulty finding a dance partner.  I’ve been around for a while so I know a lot of people and I’m not shy about asking men for a dance.  I don’t feel the need to dance all night long to every song, (like I did in my younger years), so I don’t mind sitting out a dance if I’m not feeling the music.  I still feel welcome on the dance floor, and even when I travel outside of my local dance community I still have a great time.

However, some of my “over 40” female friends tell me that they are finding the dance floor to be a lonely place for dancers in our age group.  It’s not that these ladies don’t ever get asked to dance, but the invitations seem to be coming fewer and further in between.  It is not uncommon to see male dancers pass up older, more experienced “Salseras” in favor of younger female dancers who can barely manage a basic step.  But –as one male dancer told me – “sometimes you care about having a great dance; other times you just want to hold onto a tight, young, body.”

So what’s an “older” lady to do?  Don’t sweat it.  Just be proactive and assertive about getting your dances.  If you really want to dance, and no one has asked you, just go up and ask someone to dance with you.  It’s really not a big deal, as nearly everyone you ask will say yes.

If you are an older female dancer, try this technique the next time you go out social dancing: 1) scan the room for the best male dancers; 2) go ask one of them to dance; and 3) then bring your best dance energy to the dance floor.  If you employ this technique correctly, I find that no matter your age you will have no problems attracting dance partners throughout the rest of the night.

I should point out that I’ve also seen some older male dancers struggle to find willing female partners to join them for a social dance.  Personally, I love dancing with older men and appreciate the flavor, rhythm, and charm that many of them express on the dance floor.

However, I’ve found that some older male dancers have allowed themselves to become complacent and stale on the dance floor.  These are the Leads who competently learned a certain set of moves/patterns several years ago and have decided that these are all of the moves they ever need to know for the rest of their lives.  They shy away from learning anything new, and instead choose to recycle the same moves over and over again.  This is quite boring, (from the female dancer’s perspective,) and is more aging than any chronological passing of time.  It’s OK to be an “old” dancer, but it’s not OK to be a stale one. If you want to stay young on the dance floor, it’s crucial to learn new moves, and to experiment with different ways to express the music.

Over 40 in the Studio

If you are a brand new dance student over the age of 40, the Salsa dance studio can be an exciting, but sometimes intimidating place.  I was in my late 30’s when I first began Salsa dancing and a lot of my fellow students were younger than me.  Though I may have felt slightly out of place when I walked into my first dance class, that uneasy feeling quickly faded away as soon as we started dancing.  I always felt warmly embraced by my fellow students and I never lacked for practice partners to help me improve my dance skills.

I currently teach an introductory level Casino dancing class, and I am blessed to have three students who are in their mid-70s.  While it sometimes takes them longer to learn things than some of the younger students, these “Senior citizens” are undaunted in their enthusiasm for learning the dance.  The younger students enjoy having them in the class, and we are all inspired by their great attitude and energy.  My older students rarely miss a class, and seem excited and happy to be there every week.

If you are a dance teacher over the age of 40, the dance studio is generally a great place to be.  Most students accord a great deal of respect to older, well trained, and experienced dance teachers.  However, I find that the primary challenge for “older” teachers is to convey experience without being viewed as old-fashioned or out of touch. I have seen some young students flock to younger teachers who may possess little training or experience, but who do have a particular “look” or dance “lifestyle” which may appeal to a younger, more social media-driven generation of dancers.

Over 40 on the Performance Stage

This is probably the most controversial aspect of my current dance life.  For the past seven years I have been a member of an all ladies’ Cuban dance performance team, made up entirely of women over the age of 40.  For whatever reason, the chronological ages of our team members have been a surprisingly big deal to some people in the community.

When we first began performing there were people who questioned why women of our age would want to “display ourselves” on a public stage.  I even had a male friend say to me, “No offense — but y’all are kind of up in age to be performing.”  Despite these kinds of ageist comments, we continued to dance and to keep ourselves in the public eye.  We trained and worked really hard to improve our dance skills because we knew we wouldn’t get the performance “pass” often given to the hot, young, and sexy dance teams.

While this was a challenging experience at times, it was definitely worthwhile.  Today, our team is still loving what we do and we’ve gained the respect of many people in the dance community.  Performing is one of the best ways of communicating and sharing with others, so the older you are, the more stories you have to tell!

Some Final Thoughts on Dancing Over 40

  • If you’re over 40 and find yourself feeling out of place in the Salsa community, sign up for classes in another social dance style.  For some reason, the linear Salsa community is a lot more youth obsessed and competitive than many other social dance communities.  I find myself attending more Cuban/Casino events than Salsa events these days as the Casino community is a bit more relaxed and welcoming to dancers of all ages.
  • If you’re over 40, be sure to adopt the motto of “Live to dance another day.” In other words, don’t feel as if you have to dance every song and stay all night long until the DJ shuts it down. Dance when you feel like it, for as long as you feel like doing it.  If you feel like dancing all night—that’s fine; but, if you feel like dancing five times and calling it a wrap – that’s fine too.  It’s better to dance at your best level for fewer dances than to wear yourself out in an effort to keep up with the younger crowd. There’s just no need for this.
  • If you’re over 40 and want to stay young on the dance floor, stay physically fit to maintain your stamina and agility. And – keep learning new things to expand your dance portfolio.  Age is no excuse for complacency.
  • Finally – if you’re over 40 and you’re still dancing, YOU ARE WINNING. Personally, dancing is something that  I intend to do until I’ve been lowered into the ground in a box, and even then, I definitely will explore my dancing options in the afterlife.  Dancing is one of the purest expressions of  joy, and joy has no age limit.  So be smart, enjoy yourself, and never let anyone tell you that you are too old to dance!

12 Comments

  • Mick from Australia says:

    Too old to dance? In the Sydney salsa scene, my (our) dear friends Charles and Helen have a combined aged approaching 150 years and they are at every salsa event and social night. Charles has to be dragged from the floor by Helen, he never has time to stop dancing, and he knows every salsera in town by her name. And Helen? If she is not asked, she asks, and no one in Sydney would ever say no.

    One of the happiest sights lfor me last year was to see Helen dancing so very happily with a current World salsa champion Artia Zandian at Mambo G’s. He was grinning and having a ball too. That’s what a healthy salsa community will do for each other, and for every one.

  • Melissa says:

    Thanks so much for your comment, Mick. I love to hear about older dancers — they are absolutely inspiring!

  • Patti L Lagos says:

    Love this post! I’m 47 and love to dance to all music and with all manner of partners. Live to dance and to learn to be better everyday. I find the community in whIch I dance in Minneapolis is very open and welcoming to 40+ dancers! I
    plan to keep going as long as I am able!!!

  • Gene Senior says:

    I’m now a few years past my mid-forties and found your article bang-on. Although I only took up salsa and bachata in my forties, it’s an activity that keeps me feeling young. I may not be hip to all of the pop-culture references that some of the follows I dance with might enjoy, but the dance floor is a great leveller in many ways. We all have something in common when we’re dancing and that’s the way that it makes us feel! When I dance, I feel great 🙂

  • Curtiss Anderson says:

    My wife and I are 69 and 70 and have been dancing for only 5 years. Most of the dancers we dance with are much younger. I don’t think they know how old we are since we don’t look our age. All though we pick and chose how many and what songs we dance to on any given evening, we find the social salsa dancers in Connecticut very welcoming. I do find it some what intimidating asking other women to dance, because they are younger and have been dancing longer than me. Also I don’t like leaving my wife standing waiting for some guy to ask her to dance. It seems there are many more women out there that want to dance. There also seems to be some unwritten rule that you must dance with other women. We do love the dance and have met many wonderful people through the dance. We will probably dance until we can’t. So keep dancing.

  • David Sander says:

    This is a wonderful article with great advice!
    I was by some definitions too old to dance when I started into Salsa and was well over 50. I was successfully running marathons, but I found that all my athletic activity didn’t exactly match up with the movements, timing and collaboration needed for the dance floor. For the first six months of being a new lead, I even had a few women walk away on the dance floor claiming I didn’t know how to dance! There were too many other good features of dancing to consider stopping.

    By dancing frequently for many years and taking lessons regularly I got past this rough beginning and my tendency to be a slow learner. Taking regular dance lessons and Mt own movement drills were needed to overcome my weaknesses! A Salsa timing CD has been very important to maintaining development and regular movement practice. I look for classes with new types of movements useful to broaden my dancing.
    Those dance skills include training for precise movements in spins and steps so my lead can be accurate. One of the reasons that advanced movements are just that is that Salsa dancing is fast so it rewards speed and precision of movement when you consider the physics of squeezing complex Salsa movements into eight counts.

    As an older dancer you likely should do Yoga and some regular runs to keep your basic condition and flexibility up. Its also important to identify any health problems however simple the cause. At one point I was getting dizzy during the day which didn’t mesh well with my desire to keep dancing. Looking around for a cause in nutritional books, I was astounded to find that having low sodium can cause this so I now use a sodium and potassium salt substitute. In another case, a hamstring pull from running took a while to heal and never felt right until the underlying low copper levels were found and fixed.

    It is wonderful to be an inspiration to experienced dancers who may fear that their dance days are going to come to an end at 30. Recently I was able to complete an advanced class in dancer lifts by Darlin Garcia even despite my worries of not being strong enough or young enough to do this. My regular isometrics and light barbell use gave me the basic strength for this although three months of moderate weight lifting would be an even better preparation!

    One clue for follows is that the best leads are fine with being asked to dance. A lead doesn’t want to collect rejections, so being asked to dance is a zero risk thrill for most of us. The Salsa community should accept older dancers who have something to give back to the community just as it accepts new dancers to fill the future ranks of dancing.

  • Susan says:

    Spot on. There are times when I feel like giving up on dancing. I know the guys that will dance with me if I ask, but it is sure nice to be asked occasionally. I do feel like they want the young salseras. I don’t go to hook up, I just want to DANCE. I still take lessons off and on, and I only go to my local festival, mostly because my S.O. does not dance, and there are limits to his patience with time apart. And I do tire more easily, and my heels are getting lower with each new pair of dance shoes. But as of this writing, I’m sticking to it.

  • Ricardo says:

    I’m in my mid forties. Several years ago I committed to learning how to dance slotted salsa (On One) sometime after separating and divorcing my wife. It was a life changer and a life saver. I have realized that dancing helped me become much more confident with the opposite sex now at an older age. And I have made a handful of great female salsera friends that keep me encouraged and focused on continuing to learn more through classes and social dancing. Salsa dancing has made me realize that as men we need the sensual female energy to keep us feeling young and confident. The dance floor is a safe place for this. I’ve also realised that the Dancing starts to affect other areas of your life especially in terms of failure, rejection and confidence. This is significant when you have experienced betrayal from your former spouse/lover. It soothes and restores faith in yourself.

    I have been left on the floor several times and rejected several times when I started out, but I have learned to handle those things as “not my problem”. Don’t want to dance? Fine. Next!

    Most importantly. When you’ve acquired time in this scene you start to realise that there is something very spiritual about the dancing and the music that keeps people vested in it. Salsa for life! haha

  • Melissa, I simply love your article. I’m not over 40, I’m 37 but I started dancing salsa 1.5 years ago. And honestly I had similar experiences – especially when you start. I guess it is a little different once you are an experienced dancer. Then it’s not a big deal to ask guys to dance. But as a beginner, this was and is still hard for me. But dance has no age. And the social dance scene is a place full of mixed characters. There will always be the guys just looking for young bodies to hold. Well, that’s alright. I’m there to dance and I dance with everyone. I don’t are about age, look, gender. I love your tips for the dancers over 40. I think actually they apply to everyone. I started dancing salsa LA in Berlin and I can confirm that the cuban salsa scene is also there much more open than the LA or the Mambo/On2 scene. It is a little sad bc I love dancing salsa linea but it seems to be a very competitive environment – especially in the dance school scene. Right now I’m learning and studying salsa caleña here in Cali Colombia. Believe me, bc the caleños grew up with salsa the normal social dancing is so much more fun and relaxed. They just dance. basic steps. one turn. That’s it. But with passion. They are singing, dancing, living the music. After all the caleña show stuff, my experiences in Germany this was the right medicine.

    On the performance thing: Why on earth it should be not appropriate to perform over 40? Or even over 50, 60? Probably bc the professional performances are held my young professional dancers. Then I ask myself – what means professional in that context. Well, this is a topic I could write a lot about. Would be great to see one of your performances? Can you send me a link here? I started recently my new little blog project – of course a dance blog but not only salsa. It’s called theotherdancer.com and these topics you are tackling here, these are exactly the topics that interest me the most. I also wrote an article about how to survive the social dance scene as a beginner and I will definitely include your tips and your article in my newsletter.

    Thanks for the article. Great read.

  • Melissa says:

    Hi Kathi! Thanks so much for your insightful and thoughtful comments. I was 37 when I first began Salsa dancing, so I definitely understand the dance path that you are currently traveling. With regard to your question, I would love to send you a link of from one of my dance team’s performances, but I will first have to get permission from our team leader. I’m sure that she will say it’s OK, but I do have to check first. I will see her tonight, so I will send you another message, hopefully with a link, tomorrow. Thanks again for your interest in my article; I greatly appreciate it! Melissa.

  • Melissa says:

    Thank you to everyone for taking the time to read and comment on this article. I greatly appreciate your interest in this topic and I love hearing about all of your experiences. I am inspired by each and every comment, so please keep them coming. Thanks again, and Happy Dancing!! Melissa.

  • Melissa says:

    Kathi — please send a Friend request to my Facebook page, (Melissa West-Koistila). That way we can connect and I can send you some performance links. Thanks for your interest! Melissa.

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