The lub-dub of music and dance replicate the heartbeat. The ever-present diastole and systole that we are peripherally aware of is always with us, a reminder of just how catchy a beat is. Just listen to a march—you will probably get right in step with it, whether you want to or not. Watch the “I Got Rhythm” scene from An American in Paris and revel in a jubilant Gene Kelly tapping away in the midst of a group of children. He shows them a time step, the Shim Sham, the Charleston, and does impressions of soldiers, cowboys and Charlie Chaplin, all the while slowing and quickening the beat with his feet and body.
But somehow, as we get older, our grasp on the beat lessens. What is it about the aging process and a hormone-depleted brain that lowers our ability to pound out a rhythm?
I teach dance to people with movement disorders whose symptoms include serious tremor, rigidity, and a typical shuffling gait. Their brains lack dopamine, which assists in the coordination of movement. I also teach people in their 70s, 80s and 90s who have arthritis, joint replacements, or foot problems. In addition, they may take a mixture of medications that mess with their internal metronomes. So getting to the beat, even while listening to what I consider very obvious music, can be a real challenge.
I have tried a variety of techniques to work around the loss of rhythm in older age or in symptomatic adults. First, of course, is the selection of the music itself. Although Indian tablas and the Cuban Buena Vista Social Club recordings have what I consider an un-missable beat, they turned out to be too complicated for many of my students. There’s so much syncopation and cross-rhythm going on, novices have a hard time getting to the basic 1,2,3,4.
I have a lot of success with band music—the stomp of the Mardi Gras Indians known as the Wild Tchoupitoulas really works! The unforgettable Motown songs are rooted in rhythm, as are basic old fashioned marches (“76 Trombones,” “Stars and Stripes Forever,” “Liberty Bell March”). What is key is finding songs that were popular when my students were teenagers. There is some research indicating that musical memory remains fresh in older adults, even in the presence of dementia. We can imply that music that was important to you at this critical time in your life is still a deep part of your emotional past when you’re 85. So if you knew and loved a song back then, and it had some meaning for you because of associations with important people and events in your life, it will never really vanish. The tunes of Michael Jackson, Chubby Checker, and Neil Sedaka are perfect for reinforcing a pattern—mainly because they are familiar.
Once having settled on the music, I asked the dancers to sit in a circle and clap the first beat in each measure. I emphasize this with my own clapping and counting, since many people have no idea what a measure is or where beats are supposed to come. I then move onto asking them to clap on the “2,” the “3” and the “4.” Sometimes, it works! (I have made an attempt to visualize rhythm by drawing a staff with notes on it, to show how a whole note is held throughout a measure, a half for half a measure, quarter for one beat, etc. but this seems pedantic! No one really enjoyed the lesson so I dropped it.)
What’s the difference, I will ask, between a waltz and a fox trot? I get answers that range from the type of clothing people wear to the venue where you would do these dances. No one volunteers that a waltz is 3/4 time and a foxtrot 4/4 time. So again, we listen to music and clap out the time.
After they’ve established a firm beat on their own, I’ve tried clapping a counter-rhythm to theirs, but the mimic factor seems to make things fall apart. Because I’m the teacher, they want to do everything I do… even if I am scratching my head, they will scratch with me! So it’s hard to ask them to stick to their guns while I do something else. Sometimes we will use instruments—maracas, tambourines, bells—instead of hands, which allows me to create rhythm groups based on type of instrument. Again, this really only works when I’m doing it along with them.
Next we move onto the floor and start walking. I usually just ask people to walk at their own pace, with no music playing. Then I turn on something with a beat and ask them to walk in step with it. Once they are pretty confident with this, I change the walk. We walk half-time, double-time, with a step-drag (as in the wedding march), with a prissy mince up on the toes, and a crab-walk sideways. I try to encourage them to “just do it” instead of trying to count out each phrase, but once again, I see them watching me for cues. Heartbeats are fine for some people, but dance class turns on the pressure!
Most of my students do best with a group piece, where everyone learns the same choreography but does it at a different time, like a round. So setting movement to “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” they can all learn the dance together and then go off and practice in their particular groups. When it comes time to put the thing together, singing and dancing at the same time reinforce the beat. In addition, a popular song that’s all over the airwaves is a great choice. Pharrell’s “Happy” may be one of the catchiest tunes I’ve ever heard, with a non-stop beat. It was useful to choreograph a small “showpiece” for a Parkinson’s fund-raiser last month to music that my students could hear all over the place.
But nothing compares to those moments when dancers listen to a song they know and love. A Sinatra ballad, a Cab Calloway skat, a Beatles tune—anything that evokes a moment in their past when they were young, things were cool, and dancing was simply letting go and having fun. And their hearts beat fast and furious.
It can be that way again.