Salsa dancing may get older Latinos on their feet


Vigorous activity can improve the physical and mental health of older adults, but for many, particularly Latinos, exercise is not a regular part of their lives, according to a University of Illinois at Chicago researcher.

David Marquez has received a four-year, $1.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to see if a four-month instructional dance program for Latino seniors can improve their level of physical activity — and with it, their balance and mobility and cognitive function.

Latinos ages 65 to 74 are much less likely than other seniors to participate in physical leisure-time activities. Senior Latinos are also twice as likely to report difficulty walking as are non-Latino whites. They develop symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease an average of seven years earlier. These health disparities are likely due in part to Latinos’ lower physical activity, says Marquez, UIC associate professor of kinesiology and nutrition.

“Older Latinos are also at high risk of developing disabilities, and one of our long-term goals is to prevent disability among this disadvantaged group,” Marquez said.

Dance is widely accepted among Latinos, but seniors have few opportunities for dancing and may not have danced at all since they were children, Marquez said. Night club dancing is often too fast-paced and too late at night for older adults. In a pilot study of his dance program, Marquez found that there was a lot of interest in dancing among this population.

Marquez teamed up with Miguel Mendez, an accomplished Latin dance instructor. With input from focus groups, they developed an instruction program of Latin dances for older adults called BAILAMOS. The tempo slows at times, and people who need to can spend more time on a given dance step. Everyone is able to learn the steps and do the four dances by the end of the class, Mendez said.

The four-month, twice weekly dance classes will be offered in senior centers, community centers and park buildings. Half of the 332 older Latinos who will be recruited will be assigned to the dance instruction program, and the other half will serve as a control group for the study.

Participants will be followed for an additional four month maintenance program to see if they continue to participate in physical activity and whether any other positive physical or cognitive outcomes, such as improved balance or increased social interactions, are preserved.

The maintenance program includes a training program for leaders at each site to encourage people to continue to dance together. In the pilot program, Marquez had found that would-be dancers had difficulty finding a place where they could do so.

Co-investigators on the grant include Michael Berbaum and Susan Hughes of UIC; David Buchner and Edward McAuley of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and JoEllen Wilbur and Robert Wilson of Rush University. Also contributing are Mendez, of Dance Academy of Salsa in Chicago; and Veronica Aranda and Sonia Lopez of the University of Illinois Extension.

UIC ranks among the nation’s leading research universities and is Chicago’s largest university with 27,500 students, 12,000 faculty and staff, 15 colleges and the state’s major public medical center. A hallmark of the campus is the Great Cities Commitment, through which UIC faculty, students and staff engage with community, corporate, foundation and government partners in hundreds of programs to improve the quality of life in metropolitan areas around the world. For more information about UIC, please visit

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