Author: Ali Phaneuf
You'll never guess how athletes like Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Steve McLendon, Bruins goaltender Jeremy Swayman, and English professional soccer player Rio Ferdinand perfected their footwork. When they weren't training with their teams, you might have been able to find them practicing their dance skills. Why?
Here are the top health benefits for athletes that practice dance:
- Improve coordination
- Improve balance
- Improve memory
- Improve cardiovascular health
- Improve flexibility
And just like these professional athletes improved their minds and bodies through dance, so can our Special Olympics athletes. In fact, just four years ago Amanda Santos saw a need for a dance program in the Special Olympics community, and the Unified Dance program in Westborough was born.
''I used to dance, and when I entered high school and joined sports teams, I didn't have time to dance anymore. At the same time, I had been volunteering for Special Olympics Massachusetts soccer and basketball in my town for a few years and realized that a lot of athletes loved dancing and going to school dances. I thought of creating the Unified Dance Program to keep dance in my life and to be able to provide the athletes with the opportunity to dance regularly as well."
This program is now run by high school senior, Victoria ''Tori" Pringle, who describes Unified Dance as, ''a really cool sport because it's something you can do anywhere at any time. You can put on your favorite song and move around with your friends, and it's a sport that doesn't depend on the weather or what time of year it is. You don't have to have any formal training or a specific range of motion--you just need yourself and some music."
While some athletes might find it difficult to stay active and move around during the winter season, dance is a great way to energize your body. And while snowy days may be long and gloomy, dance is known to help relieve stress and stimulate the body in a positive way. Dancing can improve an athlete's energy. When you do fast-paced movement your body is in constant motion, increasing your blood flow and heart rate. The Department of Health and Human Services' physical activity guidelines suggests that adults should do at least 150-300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise, or 75-150 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity. All styles of dance make for great cardio workouts since your heart rate gets challenged by executing different moves.
From your arms, to your abdominal muscles, thighs, calves, and toes, dancing works all parts of the body. Dancing also incorporates movements on all planes of motion and from all directions, which improves balance (which could be a great benefit while trying to stay on your toes on the soccer pitch).
Amanda's mom, who's a behavioral therapist, helped her format the Unified Dance Program to provide as many health benefits as possible. According to Amanda, ''Some of the health benefits were improvement of posture, increased flexibility, the elevation of mood, and decreased anxiety. It also provides an environment that allows for informal socialization and the building of social bonds outside of the educational context, since a lot of these athletes don't have the opportunity to socialize outside of school hours."
The Westborough Program was also able to film their different routines through Westborough TV. ''We filmed all of the dances so if students couldn't make it in person they had online access and because the physical education teachers throughout the Westborough Public School District wanted to be able to use the dances for their Special Education PE classes," explained Amanda.
Tori describes the Unified Dance Program as a Zumba-like dance experience, with lots of arm movements, jumps, and claps. The dancers also practice warm-up exercises, stretches, and deep breathing. Dance is more than a way to get stronger and improve balance. It also benefits people's mental health. By performing in front of friends and other people, dancers are able to combat social-anxiety as well as boost self-confidence and increase their own self-awareness. Above all, dance is an inclusive sport.
''Dance is really great because anybody can do it, even if they might have an extreme physical disability," said Tori, ''It's just a really awesome sport to share with people. Dance is a way of communication. Not everybody can use words, but everyone can use dance."
So the next time you find yourself sitting at home with nothing to do, try turning on your radio, or Spotify, or YouTube and rock out to your favorite song. Not only will you feel great after getting your body moving, but you'll be building muscle and improving balance that will make you a healthier athlete in the long run. And who knows, maybe you'll be able to take the skills you learn at a local dance program with you onto the basketball court or football field.