82-year-old Louise Aubrey has some fun with 3-year-old Adeline Duckworth. Picture: Adam Head
82-year-old Louise Aubrey has some fun with 3-year-old Adeline Duckworth. Picture: Adam Head

Dance like no one is watching, the oldies are

When a bunch of old birds in a retirement village start a cheerleading squad, a video of one of their rehearsals goes viral.

Millions of people around the world can scarcely believe their eyes.

Good grief, most of these gals are in their 70s! Shouldn't they be sitting quietly in a corner and knitting? Instead, they're wearing miniskirts and punching the air with pompoms.

Whatever happened to acting your age?

Ask Diane Keaton or Jacki Weaver, the lead actors in the new film POMS, that question and they're likely to tell you to stick it up your jumper - the jumper they didn't have time to knit you because they were busy practising dance moves.

Keaton, 73, and Weaver, 71, aren't about to be defined by their age or constrained by societal expectations, and neither are the characters they play - who are not Hollywood constructs but real people.

In March, the Sun City Poms notched up 40 years of cheerleading in Phoenix, Arizona, and as the retirement village website states, "they represent the fulfilment of life at any age … these ladies are having the time of their lives, and shattering conventional images of senior citizens".

Good on them, but even better news is that positive ageing is happening here as well.

The Silver Swans ballet classes at Ascot began in March and has been wildly popular. Picture: Adam Head
The Silver Swans ballet classes at Ascot began in March and has been wildly popular. Picture: Adam Head

Older women are taking ballet lessons, tap classes, and moving to music any way they can.

And they're not living in retirement villages where activities are organised for them - they're making their own fun.

Earlier this year Louise Aubrey convinced her grandchildren's ballet teacher Marilyn Culpitt, of Ascot School of Dance in Brisbane, to start classes for women her age.

Mrs Aubrey is 82.

"I nagged Marilyn for ages, and she finally said, 'if you can get the numbers, OK', and I said 'no problem, I'll round up a few more grannies'," she says.

But neither Mrs Aubrey, a former executive assistant for an agricultural company, nor Ms Culpitt, who took up ballet in her forties after having a "midlife crisis", could have predicted the response.

"The level of enthusiasm is so high, and we all feel uplifted when we dance, with a quite different frame of mind because not only are we moving to music but we are having fun - you have to be able to laugh, we often end up in hysterics," Mrs Aubrey says.

"It's not as simple as it seems, but there are no floor exercises - when you're in your 80s the ground is too far away - but we are using most of our bodies and doing it gracefully."

Diane Keaton and Jacki Weaver star of members of a real-life seniors cheersquad in their new movie, Poms. Picture: Roadshow Films
Diane Keaton and Jacki Weaver star of members of a real-life seniors cheersquad in their new movie, Poms. Picture: Roadshow Films

Ms Culpitt, 62, teaches the Silver Swans course, specifically created for over 55s by the Royal Academy of Dance, and following a successful four-week trial in March has had to put on additional classes to meet demand. This week she also launched tap dancing classes.

"My oldest student is 91 and I've been absolutely blown away by the reaction," she says. "Obviously we're not doing triple pirouettes and leaps across the stage, it's geared to everyone's activity level and ability, but it's great low-impact exercise that also improves co-ordination and keeps the brain active."

New research finds exactly that.

A study of more than 1000 elderly Japanese women shows dancing significantly reduces the risk of injury or disability when going about daily activities such as walking, bathing and dressing.

The research, published in December in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & science in Sports, finds women who dance regularly have a 73 per cent lower chance of becoming disabled, and no other exercise, including callisthenics, walking or yoga, has such a strong impact.

The Silver Swan ballet class was created after 82-year-old Louise Aubrey (centre) convinced Marilyn Culpitt there was demand. Picture: Adam Head
The Silver Swan ballet class was created after 82-year-old Louise Aubrey (centre) convinced Marilyn Culpitt there was demand. Picture: Adam Head

Why? Dancing requires not only balance, strength and endurance, the researchers say, but also cognitive ability - adaptability and concentration to move according to the music, artistry for graceful motion, and memory for choreography.

Another new paper, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, analyses 32 studies on people aged 50-85 and finds that those who do mind-body exercises, such as dance or tai chi, have stronger general cognitive function than people who don't.

They are more able to adapt to new and changing situations and their memory is improved.

This fits with Australian research published in The Courier-Mail this week that shows moderate-intensity exercise keeps ageing brains healthy.

All the evidence suggests that those who can move should.

So what's stopping people?

In POMS, a number of deterrents present - disapproving relatives and mockery by younger people (shame on them), fear of failure, and medical conditions ranging from bad knees to cancer.

But as Jacki Weaver's character Sheryl tells Diane Keaton's Martha: "You were dying yesterday, and you're going to be dying next week. In the meantime, you should be dancing your ass off".

kylie.lang@news.com.au