The World Health Organization recently analyzed research from over 900 global publications and concluded that engaging with the arts and culture can significantly benefit both mental and physical health.

I’m reminded of an essay by Robert Fulghum, author of the book Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, observing that if you ask a classroom full of kindergarteners how many are singers, artists, and dancers – all hands shoot up!

Visit upper grades and fewer and fewer hands go up until by high school very few students will claim any artistic abilities. What if, as a gift to ourselves, we reclaimed our love for and belief in our inner artist?

What if we channeled our 5-year-old selves and sang, danced, drew, painted, and sculpted without self-criticism. To do that we’d have to drown out not just criticism of abilities but also ageist expectations. I’m sharing my story to illustrate what I mean.

I Used to Be a Dancer

In my 20s and 30s, I taught dance and co-directed and performed with a university dance company. In my 30s, I became a mom and a published author and started a career as a senior wellness consultant.

My life allowed so little time for dancing that, when I eventually uttered, “I used to be a dancer,” when chatting with a colleague, I felt actual pain as my kinship with strength and grace and joyful movement fractured.

So, at age 48, with a “now-or-never” urgency, I leaped into a local dance performance. The problem was, my mind lagged behind.

The Aging Myth

As a heathy aging specialist, I fully understood the power of ageism to undermine well-being, but professional knowledge failed to stop my subconscious “aging scripts” from running the show.

Long story short, my return to the stage failed. I learned the dances and went through the motions; injured myself on dress rehearsal night and couldn’t perform. The flood of disappointment was immediate, and then resignation swept in as strong and dangerous as an undertow – “I used to be a dancer.”

Much later, it hit me. I’d fallen prey to ageism. Even though I know that inactivity – not age – causes the majority of functional loss, at the first signs of my own physical decline I’d let the constant accusations linking age with decline sideline me.

So, at age 52, a busy professional, wife, and mother of two, I found myself standing on stage in a skimpy leotard, fishnet stockings and heels, seconds from performing a Fosse dance piece (think the movie Chicago) with eight other dancers ranging in age from 18-28.

But it wasn’t an easy path. The physical retraining paled in comparison to what it took to overcome both external aging stereotypes and internal beliefs.

Floor to Ceiling Mirrors and Indifference

Walking into the dance studio was my first trial. Approaching dance like a work project, I identified the resources I needed to be successful: strength, flexibility, balance, and a good friend to confide my mission.

I was stretching, doing cardio and strength training, and attending dance classes twice per week. But surrounded by a roomful of dancers, none of them over 25, and not one of them meeting my eye, I encountered an unexpected wall of indifference.

I had taught dance 5 days a week for over 10 years, right in this studio, but none of these dancers knew that! I was going to have to start at the bottom to earn my place.

Overcoming Challenges

My resolve was tested continually: when I had to choose between attending a professional conference and dancing; when I doubted my ability to choreograph a dance; when my knee started to hurt; and when I started to feel anxious about performing.

I had been one of the best dancers – could I stand average, or just being good “for my age”? I had to make a conscious effort almost every day to override aging stereotypes and self-doubt.

My knee hurts. Maybe I should stop. “Well, my knee hurt when I was a young dancer and off-and-on through the years when I wasn’t dancing,” I would remind myself. Advil, ice, stretch, strengthen, better warm-up.

I probably shouldn’t use that move; I could hurt myself. Then, I’d counter, “Do I have the necessary strength, flexibility, and balance? If so, get with it, if not, what can I do to gain them?”

Reclaiming Joy

My inner dialogue danced with class interactions. Gradually, some eye contact and smiles, and more confidence and joy in movement, graced my hours at the studio. When a dancer asked, “Can you show me that move?” I knew I’d graduated from being a mere curiosity.

When I regressed to the attitude of doing well enough “not to embarrass myself,” my friend Toby challenged my thinking then drove seven hours to be with me the week of the show.

Curtain up, lights on cue, music – friends, husband, and kids in the audience – what a rush! The piece was good. I was good. And the experience was life affirming.

Fast Forward 8 Years

I’ve since danced in every yearly show, and, as a 60th birthday present to myself, choreographed and performed a physically challenging piece to Aretha Franklin’s classic song, “Rock Steady.” And here’s the deal – I was stronger, leaner, and more flexible at age 60 than I was at age 52.

I’m sharing the video to Rock Steady (I’m center stage – long hair); not as a “Yay me, look at what I can do,” but as a YAY, YOU – what can you do?

What artistic activity have you given up that you used to love to do? What steps could you take to reclaim it? Is there a form of art you have always wanted to embrace? If not now, when? Please share with our community!

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