Best foot forward: how tango dancing can aid your well-being

With the Dubai Tango Festival taking place next week, we tap into how the Argentine dance can aid mental and physical ailments.

Dance instructors Julian Vilardo and Daniela Barria from Tango-OK in Dubai. Lee Hoagland/The National
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Featuring ganchos, boleos, volcadas and colgadas, the Argentine tango is one of the world's most beautiful dances, full of spectacular footwork that takes seconds to execute yet years to perfect.

The benefits of this highly visual art form, however, extend far beyond aesthetics – research shows tango can have a transformative effect not just on our physical health, but on our mental well-being, too.

Maya Saliba is the organiser of the Dubai Tango Festival, to be held from May 27 to 31 at The Meydan Hotel. She has taught the dance in the UAE for more than eight years, and believes it improves our health in many ways.

“There are so many health benefits of dancing tango, including weight loss, improved mood, better sleep and increased energy levels. It is a great way to be healthy, socialise and have fun,” Saliba says.

“For me, tango is the perfect way to alleviate anxiety, stress or depression that has built up during the day. I call it the meditational yoga of dancing.”

But it’s not just the festival organisers who recognise tango’s positive effects. Dr Marie Thompson, a senior clinical psychologist at the American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology in Dubai, agrees that the benefits are multifaceted. While she acknowledges physical exercise improves mild to moderate mental-health issues, she believes that dance is particularly helpful.

“The social contact involved in tango is a protective factor in managing mental health. Often people with depression become withdrawn from society, and a regular dance class can provide the necessary motivation to leave the house and be around ­people,” Thompson says.

“The physical contact can trigger the release of oxytocin – a hormone responsible for bonding and generating feelings of closeness – which also plays a role in positive mental health.”

Several papers, including a 2013 report by researchers at the University of New England in Australia, have heralded the benefits of tango for stress, anxiety and depression. Evidence is now emerging, however, that suggests the dance may help alleviate much more serious conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease.

According to the results of a new study by researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital and the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, Argentine tango “can improve balance and functional mobility, and may have modest benefits upon cognition and fatigue in Parkinson’s ­disease”.

The study, the first to examine the effect of tango on non-motor symptoms, assessed changes in sufferers’ motor, or motion, abilities following a 12-week tango course. It researched whether a music-linked social and physical activity, such as tango, could help Parkinson’s patients who suffer from motor dysfunctions, including tremors and rigidity, as well as from non-motor symptoms, such as depression, fatigue and cognitive ­degeneration.

In Argentina, the dance’s birthplace, several hospitals offer tango lessons to people suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. A leader in the field, Hospital de Clinicas in Buenos Aires claims that tango isn’t a cure for either disease, but with its complex steps and taut-muscled movements, helps to slow symptoms.

Norma Cairns, a counselling psychologist at ACPN in Dubai, thinks the move is “fantastic” and “very progressive”.

“Any form of exercise is beneficial, and dance is a form of movement,” she says. “I’m sure lots of patients are benefiting from the classes.”

While tango assists with ­mental-health issues, it also helps physical fitness, engaging abdominal muscles in ­particular.

Oliver and Lin Krstic run Tango­-OK, a Dubai-based tango school that also offers classes in Abu Dhabi.

“Physically, you stretch and stand tall and proud,” they say. “You engage your core muscles, and every part of your being, from your head to your toes, learns how to stand. Every part of the body is involved.

“Tango can be as calm and relaxing or as intense as you decide. As you are the creator of your dance, you choose how intensively you wish to engage your body. It’s not easy, though. Not only do you have to master your own body, you have to be aware of your partner’s body, too, and know how to communicate without words.”

One of their students, Maria Teresa Schutzmann, started lessons six months ago. A former professional runner, representing Italy at the athletics World Championships and numerous other international meetings, she built up exceptionally strong abdominal muscles. After retiring at 28 and giving birth to her first child, however, she experienced diastasis rectus abdominis, a separation of the rectus abdominis or “six-pack” muscle.

She worked hard to decrease the gap between the separated muscle through kinesitherapy, a treatment that uses passive and active muscular movements such as yoga and massage, but it was dance that finally gave her the results she sought.

“My turning point was tango,” she says. “The position you have to maintain during the dance gets your transverse abdominal muscles working, and this is the secret to a flat belly.”

Previously, Schutzmann experienced lower-back pain, and with slack abdominals, looked like she was “four to five months pregnant”.

“Tango is very good for your body. You increase your balance and flexibility, you improve your posture, and you work your abdominal and leg muscles,” she says.

Saliba agrees: “Tango helps coordination of the mind and body. It is a good cardiovascular exercise and increases mobility, balance, stride length and core strength.

“It is the ideal exercise for social, mental and physical well-being across the ages.”

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