Twinkle-toed retirees twirl into the sunset

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Twinkle-toed retirees twirl into the sunset


The Dance Love (Chumsarang) team from North Jeolla won the Senior Dance Sports Competition. Provided by Sports Toto

Think ballroom dancing and certain images float onto the horizon.

Slender dancers in coattails with slicked back hair and bow ties turning and twirling their partners dressed in elegant gowns. They glide around the hardwood floor to the mesmerizing beat of the tango or the graceful melody of a waltz.

But that’s the image gleaned from old black-and-white movies. These days you are just as likely to see a bunch of retirees hoofing around the dance floor as they take up dance sport classes.

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers for the moment and consider that dance as a sport is becoming a highly popular pastime for seniors in their golden age.

It’s fun, it’s exercise and the health benefits are very real.

The first in the series of events hosted by Sports Toto, the sports lottery game corporation, was the Senior Dance Sports Competition at the end of last month at the Seoul Fashion Art Hall near the now demolished Dongdaemun Stadium, northern Seoul.


The Wonju team

Dance sport is essentially competitive ballroom dancing.

Nearly 350 twinkle-toed senior citizens, plus an entourage of 110 supporters, showed up.

They were split into 17 teams, each with 17 to 19 dancers, and had to perform one or two genres of dance sport for approximately seven minutes.

The 17 teams had been selected through preliminaries in 15 regional cities. A total of 200 teams numbering over 3,000 senior dancers had started out on the long road to the finals.

“The judges were looking at stage manner and presentation,” said Park Kyoung-hee, a ballroom dance instructor at Yonsei University, head of the judges’ panel.


Kang Young-pyo and Chun Boksung perform Latin steps.

“More specifically, we looked for proper interaction with the audience and the rest of the team,” said Park.

Well before the scheduled event start time of 9:30 a.m., the teams were seen going over last-minute rehearsals in the hallways.

With prizes ranging from 300,000 won ($235.66) to 1 million won, medals, trophies and most importantly, bragging rights on the line, the seniors were noticeably giddy with excitement.

The dance moves were not as smooth nor the footsteps as quick as you might expect from younger sports dancers, but the effort, teamwork and bright smiles made the event a pleasure to watch.

One of the teams noticeably showing solidarity and strong support for each other was the team from Daejeon, called the Silver Wings (Eunbit Nalgae), which boasted the oldest dancer in the competition, Woo Yong-chan, 81.

Woo’s teammates said he had inspired them to try harder and had made rehearsals leading up to big events a lot more enjoyable than the competition itself.

Although Woo admits he was clueless about dancing until a few months ago, he said dancing had made him a happier man. “I definitely think my health has improved and trying to focus on the cha-cha week-in and week-out for months has been good for my psyche,” said Woo.

As Korea’s birthrate continues to decrease and people live longer, it is no surprise that retirees are visibly more active than before.


Woo Yongchan, 81, the oldest dancer in the dance sports competition

Recent numbers by the National Statistical Office showed that citizens aged 65 or over make up more than 10 percent of the entire population.

Jang Cha-young of Sports Toto said the competition was designed to give back to the senior community. Sports Toto had been trying to come up with events that can help tackle some of the social issues of the day, and organized the event with the help of the Community Chest of Seoul and the Korea Association of Senior Citizens Welfare Institutions.

“We’ve been planning this event since January and we decided that sports dance would be the most suitable activity. It’s a great form of exercise for seniors and the right combination of music and movements gets the endorphins racing,” said Jang.

Since there are many seniors in retirement who face various physical and psychological ailments as they age, dance competitions are a means of getting people out of the house and into a friendly, supportive atmosphere, Jang added.

Don’t just take Jang’s word for it. Lee Duk-chul, a family physician at Severance Hospital in northern Seoul, an expert on geriatric medicine, spoke highly of the positive effects of dancing.

As the body and its organs age, hormone levels become unbalanced and the aging process can cause depression, Lee said.

He added that a break from mundane daily routines through hobbies and group activities is an important way of energizing the elderly.

“Dance or other forms of exercise are great for elders. It’s even better if spouses can participate, take strolls or perform other forms of exercise together. Having said that, it’s important for seniors to remember to take things one step at a time,” Lee continued, since a sudden increase in physical activity can put a strain on the body and its organs.

There were many couples at the event but one couple stood out: Kang Young-pyo, 72, and his wife, Chun Bok-sung, 70, from Gangbuk, northern Seoul, who have been married 47 years.

Their team name was Golden Senses (Geumbit Hyangi.)

Prior to retirement, they ran a sportswear store and now spend their leisure time hiking and playing badminton.

They got involved in sports dance after Kang started missing out on badminton because of a knee injury.

“I got a bad name for sitting around on the bench while my wife played badminton with others,” said Kang.

A friend recommended they participate in the dance sport competition and things could not have turned out better.

“I must say, my back and knees feel better after dancing on a weekly basis. I feel healthier and younger than ever,” he said.

When asked about the secret to a successful marriage, Chun and Kang agreed it was imperative for couples to compromise and understand each other in any situation.

“Instead of showing frustration, just give your spouse a friendly smile,” added Chun.

After a long day of competition, the team from North Jeolla, the only team in the competition consisting of all spouses, wowed the crowd with their costumes and impressive tango routines. They took top prize.

“I’m proud of my team and very happy to be receiving this honor in place of my teammates,” said the North Jeolla team leader Seo Jae-won.

The team with the eldest participant in the competition placed second, and the team from Gangbuk, Seoul, who performed an exciting Latin dance, came third.

It just goes to show: age doesn’t matter, especially when it comes to old-time ballroom dancing.

How sports dancing waltzed its way into the mainstream

Ballroom dancing was associated with the seedier side of society in Korea in the past conjuring up images of sleazy nightclubs, adulterous affairs and torrid liaisons. Little wonder, then, that such dancing was shunned by the masses.

How times have changed.According to Park, 10 ballroom dancing categories have been recognized under the category of dance sports by the International Olympic Committee since 1997.

The sport has also gained a reputation as a healthy leisure activity that enhances physical and mental health, especially for seniors.

“While ballroom dancing was viewed by the masses in Korea negatively in the past, its energetic exercise levels and the fun combination of music and movement are catching on with various age groups.”

The large number of participants in the first Senior Dance Sports Competition is one indication that it is becoming popular with the older generation. But Park has also noticed a trend among her students and the courses being offered at universities.

Dancing has become so popular that all universities in the Seoul area offer it as a course.

Although it is not an official Olympics medal sport, the IOC’s recognition of dance sport has contributed to its development at the international level, and is a step towards ultimately making it a medal sport.

Ballroom dance refers to 10 international standard and international Latin dances: slow waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, slow foxtrot, quickstep, cha-cha, samba, rumba, paso doble and jive.

By Jason Kim Staff Reporter []
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