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Social Dancing (Like Lincoln Center's Midsummer Night Swing Series) Is Good for Your Brain

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Grab a partner and do-si-do (starting tonight at Lincoln Center with ABT) because a new study reveals that the neurological effects of social dances, like country dancing, the minuet or fandango, help to better protect our brains from aging, compared to other forms of exercise.


Researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and elsewhere looked into the effects several different types of physical activities have on the wiring and function of older people's brains.

The subjects—174 healthy people in their 60s and 70s, most sedentary, all having no signs of cognitive impairment—were divided into several supervised groups, each assigned a different workout regimen for one hour three times a week, over a period of six months. One group briskly walked, another started a stretching and balance routine and the third learned and practiced country-dancing choreography. The dancing group overall had healthier white matter in their fornix—the processing-speed and memory part of the brain that's supposed to decline with old age.

The study concluded that the mental demands of learning choreography, compared to simply walking or stretching, affects the biochemistry of brain tissue. The people who exercised prior to the study also showed the least decline.

Last week was the first night of Lincoln Center's annual Midsummer Night Swing, the 15-evening summer dance party series that includes the opportunity to show off your social-dancing skills (AND beef up your brain muscles).

Cassandra Trenary in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by John Grigaitis, courtesy of ABT

To kick off the series, American Ballet Theatre soloist Cassandra Trenary and principal dancer James Whiteside made a special appearance.

Trenary and Whiteside danced a rhumba to "Sway" at Lincoln Center's ballroom-themed evening, accompanied by Brooklyn-based band Margi & the Dapper Dots playing classics by Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and more.

James Whiteside in Don Quixote. Photo by Marty Sohl, courtesy of ABT

Each evening of Midsummer Night Swing is a ticketed event, beginning at 6:30 pm with a dance lesson for people of all skill levels by some of New York's foremost instructors. Live music begins at 7:30 and lasts until 10.

Tickets and passes can be purchased through CenterCharge by calling 212-721-6500, at MidsummerNightSwing.org, at The Swing box office in the lobby of David Geffen Hall or at the box office in Damrosch Park.

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Courtesy Lovely Leaps

After the birth of her daughter in 2018, engineer Lisa McCabe had reservations about returning to the workforce full-time. And while she wanted to stay home with the new baby, she wasn't ready to stop contributing financially to her family (after all, she'd had a successful career designing cables for government drones). So, when she got a call that September from an area preschool to lead its dance program, she saw an opportunity.

The invitation to teach wasn't completely out of the blue. McCabe had grown up dancing in Southern California and had a great reputation from serving as her church's dance teacher and team coach the previous three years (stopping only to take a break as a new mother). She agreed to teach ballet and jazz at the preschool on Fridays and from there created an age-appropriate class based on her own training in the Cecchetti and RAD methods. It was a success: In three months, class enrollment went from six to 24 students, and just one year later, McCabe's blossoming Lovely Leaps brand had contracts with eight preschools and three additional teachers.

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Dance competitions were among the first events to be shut down when the COVID-19 pandemic exploded in the U.S. in mid-March, and they've been among the last able to restart.

So much of the traditional structure of the competition—large groups of dancers and parents from dozens of different studios; a new city every week—simply won't work in our new pandemic world.

How, then, have competitions been getting by, and what does the future look like?

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Despite worldwide theater closures, the Universal Ballet Competition is keeping The Nutcracker tradition alive in 2020 with an online international competition. The event culminates in a streamed, full-length video of The Virtual Nutcracker consisting of winning entries on December 19. The competition is calling on studios, as well as dancers of all ages and levels, to submit videos by November 29 to be considered.

"Nutcracker is a tradition that is ingrained in our hearts," says UBC co-founder Lissette Salgado-Lucas, a former dancer with Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Joffrey Ballet. "We danced it for so long as professionals, we can't wait to pass it along to dancers through this competition."

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