100-year-old ballet teacher shares secrets to long life: Diet, exercise, optimism

"You have to take care of yourself. This body is the only thing you’ve got," Henry Danton says.
Henry Danton, a 100-year-old ballet teacher.
Henry Danton was born on March 30, 1919. At 100, the former ballet star turned master teacher still drives around Mississippi teaching ballet.David Sprayberry / Belhaven University

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/ Source: TODAY
By A. Pawlowski

At 100 years old, Henry Danton is still the center of attention in the ballet studio, now full of students one-fifth his age.

The former dancer once pirouetted on premier stages around the world, then became a master teacher, training new generations of ballet dancers. He continues to teach today, and says he has no intention of retiring.

The British-born centenarian said he has a healthy body and mind, lives on his own, loves his smartphone, hasn’t been to the doctor in 10 years and still travels the world. He flew to London in October where he received a medal at the Royal Academy of Dance. A trip to South America is also coming up this fall.

He recently completed a residency at the Belhaven University Dance Department in Jackson, Mississippi, and teaches ballet around the state, where he resides in a small town outside Hattiesburg.

When a reporter called him amazing, he was quick to disagree.

“It’s not amazing, you have to take care of yourself," Danton told TODAY. "This body is the only thing you’ve got. You’ve been given this wonderful instrument, you have to look after it.”

He also bristled at the thought of stopping work.

“I see people who retire and they become so bored, they don’t know what to do with themselves," Danton said. "That’s when their health starts to go down. I love teaching, I don’t want to stop. Children are my vitamin.”

His own love of ballet started with ice skating. While at an ice rink in Brighton, England, he skated with a 13-year-old girl who had a “dancing mother,” Danton recalled. It was her mom who first took him to a dance studio.

After dancing and teaching in Europe, North America, South America and Australia, Danton moved to Mississippi in 1996.

“Mr. Danton’s expertise is unparalleled in our state,” said Krista Bower, chair of the dance department at Belhaven University. “(We) eagerly invited him to work with our students.”

Danton taught ballet technique classes at the school and, last month, he also staged and led daily rehearsals for ballet pieces that will be a part of the Belhaven University Fall Dance Concert in November.

These are the factors Danton credits for his long life and wellness:

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Diet:

Danton said he became a vegetarian more than 50 years ago when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the same illness that took his brother’s life.

“I came as close to dying as I think anyone can,” Danton recalled. “I got well by holistic means … I was very lucky.”

He stopped eating red meat, fish and poultry at age 49 and hasn’t consumed any animal flesh since, he said.

Danton likes to “live on seeds and nuts,” enjoys organic vegetables, drinks lots of carrot juice and consumes dairy including cheese and milk. He also occasionally eats chocolate, but stays away from other sweets in his regular diet.

He likes beer — “like a good Englishman” — but skips other alcoholic drinks.

Exercise:

Danton credits constant movement as a dancer as one of the main factors that's kept him healthy and helped him reach the age of 100.

“I really, absolutely believe exercise is the answer to everything,” he said.

Swimming is the best workout after ballet, Danton said.

He still gets some of his exercise from teaching and composing his class for the day. He also has an extensive morning routine centered on a deep tissue massage he gives himself before getting out of bed. Starting with his scalp, then moving down to his neck, shoulders, arms, legs and feet, the one-hour-plus massage stimulates blood circulation, Danton noted.

Danton says it's absolutely possible to have a healthy body and mind at 100.Courtesy David Sprayberry/Belhaven University

“With your thumb, you go as deep as you can into the muscle,” he said. “It works because my body is in incredible condition for my age.”

Because he massages each body part a certain number of times, which he has to count, Danton said he has to concentrate in a way that helps his mind stay active. Another part of his busy morning routine involves stretching with an elastic resistance band.

After all his morning exercises, he said he never eats breakfast before 11 a.m.

Positive outlook on life:

Danton is an optimist, which he called a “very important” factor in his longevity.

“There’s absolutely no point in making your life miserable," he said. "Your mood affects you physically, absolutely. I’ve never been a depressed person — I feel so sorry for people who have depression. It must be awful."

Danton stays curious about the world and said he is still learning. He has a computer and an iPhone, immediately suggesting that a caller switch to FaceTime during a recent conversation. And he loves his phone’s virtual assistant.

“Siri amazes me. She answers you immediately,” he said. "The internet is absolutely incredible. Anything you want, you can have it instantly … That’s what keeps me going. You have to be informed about everything.”

Lifestyle:

In his whole life, Danton said he has only smoked one cigarette.

“When I arrived in the United States in 1949, everyone was smoking," he recalled. "I thought, ‘Well I have to smoke,’ so I bought a pack of cigarettes, went to a park, had one cigarette and said, ‘That’s not for me.’ So I was lucky.”

Danton hasn’t been to see a doctor in a decade, he said, only running into his primary care physician a few years ago when he was getting a flu shot. The doctor has since retired.

He lives on his own and still drives a car. His sister recently died at the age of 92 and he doesn’t have any other family other than distant cousins. Besides teaching ballet, Danton fills his days with writing — he wrote most of his memoir, but stopped at 32 chapters — and traveling.

It’s absolutely possible to be healthy at 100, he said, as long as you take care of your body. “It’s a gift from God and you’ve got to look after it.”