Written by NU student Rylie Ellam
I never thought that I would ever dance the tango with the elderly in Japan. I never even knew that it was an organized activity. But it is, and I did it! On my Dialogue of Civilizations in Japan [with faculty members Lori Gardinier and Thomas Vicino], my group visited an NGO called Tango Therapy Association Japan. When we arrived, we stuffed ourselves into an elevator and removed our shoes, entering a new situation and not really knowing what to expect. We had learned about the physical and mental benefits of tango therapy, but I had no preconception of how it would play out.
Adopted from Argentinian culture, tango is a relatively new form of therapy for the aging population in Japan. By regularly gathering in a community space to exercise, the elderly can stay active and healthy in a fun, engaging way. One study demonstrates that individuals suffering from Parkinson’s Disease have progressed in both motor and nonmotor symptoms after participating in tango therapy for over two years. The movement of dancing improved their gait and balance, while the social interaction revitalized their mental health. As participants attend a few times per week, this simple activity has proven to be an exciting and effective method to maintain the health of the largest growing population in Japan.
These benefits were evident once I began dancing. There was some discomfort felt by both groups initially, but within a few minutes, we all fully embraced the situation. For every new step I learned and every new person I danced with, I felt a connection with these strangers that I hadn’t ever experienced before. I couldn’t stop smiling for the entire duration, so much that my cheeks hurt afterwards. I didn’t recognize why I felt this way, though, until I reflected on it later. Through this experience that seemed so foreign to me, I was able to impact the lives of the elderly, and they were able to impact mine. It was an intergenerational and intercultural dialogue that was communicated not through language, but through actions. Although the excursion was brief, I learned of a new force that has resonated with me: the universal power that smiles, eye contact, and physical touch can have on personal well-being.