living well

Put on Your Dancing Shoes!
By Jennifer Burns
Photography by Bob Hunt
Dancing can be an enjoyable activity for everyone—regardless of your skill level or degree of
coordination. And besides just having fun, the benefits of dance are immeasurable. Try it for yourself and you’ll see a great body isn’t the only perk involved.

Audiences were captivated by ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, watching celebrities tackle the feat of learning complicated ballroom dance routines in a matter of weeks, many of them never having formal dance training before the show. The show has taught viewers that dance can be for everyone, even if they’ve never taken a class in their lives. Many couples now are taking up dance later in life, whether as a hobby, for exercise, or for a special event such as a wedding.
The benefits of dance are almost endless, with the first and possibly the most obvious being the cardio workout it provides. It’s definitely no coincidence ballroom dancers look so fit and toned in those skimpy competition costumes.

An hour-long session of nonstop dancing can burn between 200 to 400 calories. Often times, people are so wrapped up in the fun of dancing they forget about what an intense workout it can be. Many find it’s a much more exciting exercise routine than spending time on a treadmill. However, each type of dance has its own physical benefits—e.g., belly dancing mainly works the abs, thighs, and glutes, while jazz improves strength and flexibility.

According to dance instructor and former professional dancer Mandy Barrett, “[Dance] is great exercise. Swing is a fast-paced dance, and if you’re going hard core, you can get quite the aerobic workout. All of the Latin dances require some hip motion, so you get a great core work out. When you get further into dancing, you can learn some great posture and walking techniques that can take 15 lbs. off the way you look just in how you stand.”

Barrett began her dance career as a child, taking tap and ballet classes for a short period. Then about 10 years ago, she became interested in swing dancing, taking lessons at Chicago nightclubs as many nights a week as she could. She even met her husband Drew through dancing at a club called Frankie’s Blue Room in Naperville. The two began dancing together every night of the week, then began competing in local swing competitions. During a night out, the couple was approached with an offer to teach ballroom and swing classes. When they moved to Peoria, they met Abraham Ghantous, owner of Body Fitness Inc., who presented Barrett with the opportunity to teach again.

One of Barrett’s students, Susan Meiss, said she and her husband Tim benefit physically from the exercise involved in their dance classes. “We feel like we’ve had a good workout after classes.”

Another student, April Wilcoxen, added, “Learning to have a good frame has also helped my posture.”

A great body isn’t the only perk related to dancing regularly. Dancing increases blood flow to the brain, reduces feelings of loneliness, and improves mental capacity and memorization through learning different steps and routines.

Partaking in dance can also improve one’s social skills and confidence. “Socially, dance can change your life,” Barrett said. “If you’re one of those people who sits on the side at a party or a wedding, imagine being confident enough to stand up, walk up to a random person, and ask him or her to dance. It can change the way you interact with the world.”

Student Wilcoxen became interested in dancing when Dancing With the Stars was televised. “I’d been watching the show, and had no social life,” she said. “Dancing regularly has helped me establish a social connection and also is a good chance for me to challenge myself. I first started lessons as something to do after work, but they’ve become my sanity saver.”

Lucy Drone, another dance student, said dance helps her both socially and emotionally. “Dancing’s been a great activity for connecting with people from all walks of life. Because I don’t have a steady partner, I’ve learned to make conversation more easily with new person after new person as I dance with them. If you have a stressful or tiring day, the music simply invigorates you so all your worries are forgotten. There’s just no way you can swing dance and not have a smile on your face.”

Gina Kennedy, co-owner and instructor at Water Street Dance Company, actually started her dance career to become more outgoing. “I was painfully shy as a teenager,” Kennedy said. “My aunt suggested that my mother put me in dance to help build my self-esteem.”

Kennedy began her dance career at around age 12 or so and continued dancing through high school, when she began assistant teaching. She eventually turned her passion into a career, and now teaches tap, jazz, and hip hop, as well as choreographing competition dances.

Body Fitness dance student Mahikulani LaHood and her husband Richard started taking swing lessons for the social aspects of being able to dance in front of others and for the added bonus of getting out of the house. Mahikulani wanted to be able to keep up with the steps Richard already knew, and now they’re able to dance in public at weddings and family gatherings. They also enjoy the classes as a night out without baby. “It’s turned into our date night,” LaHood said.

Meiss said dancing has also strengthened her marriage. “It caused us to spend more time together and has given us something else in common to enjoy together,” she said. “We’ve also deepened friendships and try to practice outside our weekly classes. We have friends who have also taken lessons, and we plan ‘dance’ parties with them and enjoy working on our moves those evenings. This summer especially, we’ve been invited to so many weddings that we’re keeping up our dancing at those receptions, too.”

Don’t let a feeling of starting too late in life deter you from signing up for a class. “The best types of students are those who love to dance and really want to be in class,” she said. “It’s not at all necessary to have a background in dance. Everyone has to start somewhere.”

And there’s also hope for the hopelessly clumsy. “Just be ready to dedicate some time,” Barrett said. “Keep in mind though, if you’re clumsy in life, you may not be clumsy in dance. Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I fall down stairs, bump into doorways, walls, tables—you name it—and I usually have about five bruises on any given day from running into something. However, I can navigate the dance floor with the best of them.”

Dance student LaHood agrees. “Richard used to only dance with his sisters because they knew how to follow him, but now I can step in,” she said. “I thought I wouldn’t have been able to learn anything, but now I know if I can learn it, so can anyone.”

Ghantous’ advice is to get out as much as possible. “The key is to dance outside of class,” he said. “Dancing is no different than anything else someone is trying to learn. You have to practice.”

Student Meiss couldn’t agree more. Besides the weddings and parties she and her husband attend to show off their moves, they also participate in as many public dance-related activities as they can. “We’ve been complimented on many occasions as to how good we are (we know there’s a lot of work to be good, but enjoy the compliment anyway).”

Many local fitness centers and dance studios offer beginner classes in various styles of dance.

Body Fitness offers dance classes in Swing, Ballroom, Latin, Hustle, Night Club Two Step, Lindy Hop, and Middle Eastern styles (Belly Dancing, Dubke), ranging from beginner to advanced.

Water Street Dance Company offers Ballet, Ballroom, Tap, Jazz, and Hip Hop.

The Peoria Park District offers dance classes in Flamenco, Irish Step, Line Dance, Ballroom, Latin, Swing, LIndy Hop, Tap, Jazz, Ballet Exercise, and Belly Dancing. The park district also offers Ballroom specifically for newlyweds-to-be who want to practice their first dance together.

For more information on classes at Body Fitness Inc., call 685-1950; for information on classes at Water Street Dance Company, call 636-8872; and for information on classes at the Peoria Park District, contact Linda Elegant Huff at 681-2861. a&s