By Kaitlin Candelaria
Homewood resident Dotty Still has always had an interest in movement. As a child, she was athletic and tomboyish, she said. She went on to major in health, physical education and recreation at Auburn University.
“What interested me most was lifetime movement — people understanding kinesiology and their own bodies,” Still said. “People should be able to do the same things they did as kids, whether it’s sitting on the floor to play cards with their grandchildren or hopping over a creek while hiking.”
Still, a self-proclaimed life-learner, went back to obtain a master’s degree from UAB after having children. This time, she focused on sensory motor activities and the cognitive relationship between the brain and movement.
“It was basically the whole person experience,” Still said. “I had young children at the time, and I was fascinated with the feel of how our bodies work and how my own children were cognitively developing.”
Despite her interest in fitness, life took its turns, and Still found herself working in the business world, she said.
“I love my job, but it caused me to sit at a desk and work at a computer for many years,” Still said. “After raising my children, I decided I wanted more education related to what I actually do, so I went back to night school and started working on a law degree. Then, I was sitting at a desk during the day and sitting at a desk at night and cranking out papers on the weekends.”
Still began suffering from a “frozen shoulder,” an ailment that could be repaired only via surgery or intensive rehabilitation, she said. After many months of painful rehab sessions, she began mulling over her options for incorporating more movement into her life.
“At the end of that, I wanted to know what I could do to force myself to move,” Still said. “Walking is great and getting on the treadmill is great, but what could I do to target my whole body and use my joints to their full potential so that I could grow older in a healthy way?”
During this same time period, Still was dealt another heavy blow. Her mother was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, which ultimately leads to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
“I was sad and stressed and afraid for her as well as myself,” Still said. “I observed that my mother had done many of the things they recommended to prevent these sort of diseases. She reads, she walks and she eats right.”
As Still did more research, she stumbled across a 2003 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that examined leisure activities and the risk of dementia in the elderly. According to the study, dancing is the only physical activity associated with a lower risk of dementia.
“That got my attention,” Still said. “I knew then that I wanted to get involved with something that would get me dancing.”
Still first tried Zumba, a dance fitness program that incorporates dance and aerobic elements to the tune of hip hop, merengue, mambo, salsa, samba and soca music. She found Zumba wasn’t the right fit for her but was determined not to give up. Then she discovered ballroom dancing.
“With the sadness of what was going on with my mother, I needed something fun to take my mind off things,” Still said. “The first time I walked into a dance studio, there was music playing, there were people in the studio learning new things and there was this crazy, positive energy. When I got back to my car, I realized that it was the first hour in a long time that I hadn’t thought about anything negative.”
Although Still began ballroom dancing with the intentions of generating more movement and connecting her body to her mind, she soon became interested in the competitive side of dancing, she said.
“When my teacher started discussing the competitive aspect, I realized that it’s like taking a test at school,” she said. “When you know you’re taking a test, you’re more mindful of what you’re doing.”
She began training to compete in the pro/amateur category, which usually features a teacher-student duo. After her first competition, Still was hooked.
“That day on the dance floor was the biggest rush,” she said. “I had worked so hard, and it all came together. There’s music playing all day, and it’s so much fun. Now, I try to do a dance competition at least once or twice a year.”
Still, who takes three fitness classes a week at Planet Ballroom-Vestavia along with at least one private lesson and group classes, is now training for the United States Dance Championships in September. Now 60 years old, she encourages other aging adults to keep moving no matter what.
“I think people tend to make movement social, and to me, it’s something as personal as brushing your teeth,” Still said. “My principle is just to move every day, even if it’s taking a walk or doing yoga in your bedroom. It’s about you and appreciating the bodies God gave us. When we’re not using our bodies or minds, we’re dying.”