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The first Saturday Evening Ball: Arnold Schwarzenegger urges seniors to waltz their way to fitness.

When the last of their three children left home, Marian and William DeMyer decided to find an activity they could pursue together that would satisfy his desire to compete and her interest in getting fit.

Like an increasing number of older Americans, they chose ballroom dance.

"It's delightful to move, to the music, to dress up and meet new people," says Marian DeMyer, a research psychiatrist at Indiana University whose previous exercise had been limited to chasing kids around the house." After 12 years of ballroom dancing, she says, "my legs are much stronger, and I can isolate body parts in a way. I never could before. And best of all, I don't have to diet if I dance."

"Most sports, like tennis, have a male advantage so you can't be competitive with your spouse," adds her husband, William, a pediatric neurologist. "But ballroom dancing lets us compete together. And what other sport would let me hold such a delectable creature in my arms for so long?"

The DeMyers were among 300 celebrants who waltzed, cha-chaed, and fox-trotted their way around the Indiana Roof Ballroom in April at the Saturday Evening Ball. The elegant black-tie affair marked the grand kickoff of a nationwide movement to get senior citizens fit through dance.

"Tonight we begin our fitness crusade for retired people," announced actor Arnold Schwarzenegger who, as chairman of the president's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, has traveled to all 50 states to promote fitness for youngsters. "Now you'll see senior citizens getting the same amount of attention as we gave to children. People at any age ought to be exercising, and dancing is good exercise."

From college campuses to senior centers, private homes to retirement homes, more and more Americans are discovering that dancing is both great exercise and great fun. "People often sign up for lessons because they want to do something active," says Pam Rutherford, who with her husband, Dan, runs a popular Indianapolis ballroom dancing studio. "But they keep on coming because it's so much fun."

Unlike riding a stationary bike or running on a treadmill or many other forms of exercise, "dancing is pure joy," says 76-year-old Gean Dentina of Pekin, Illinois, a retired physical education teacher who has been dancing since she was six. "And it's kept me in great shape. I don't take any medications or pills--I don't even have aspirin in my medicine chest. Every morning when I get out of bed I do a left and right splits."

One indication of dancing's increased popularity is the dramatic jump in membership in the United States Amateur Ballroom Dancers Association (USABDA), which went from 2,000 members in 1988 to more than 10,000 today. "Dance sport is growing in international stature, too, with over 50 member nations," says USABDA President Peter Pover, who also represents the United States on the International Dancesport Council. That organization is currently working to make ballroom dance an official Olympic sport.

"It's ironic that you can dance on ice skates in the Olympics, but not in shoes," says Chuck Mason, who teaches ballroom dance at Indiana University/Purdue University and has coached ice dancers in ballroom techniques. "Ballroom dance is a sport as well as an art form."

While increasing numbers of young people are getting into the swing--and the mambo and the two step--seniors represent one of the major growth-areas in dance.

"Dance for seniors is skyrocketing because we have a lot more people retiring at an early age and a lot more healthy elderly who have the time to pursue activities they've always wanted to do," says Ollie Mae Ray, Ph.D., professor of health education at Eastern Illinois University. "They're looking for recreation that will keep them active. Dancing helps you relax, it clears your mind, and it can be done by people of all skill levels. There are hand-jive dances people in wheelchairs can do because it's all hands and arms; there are line dance and folk dances that people can do without partners.

"And the health benefits are great. A woman in one of my classes checked her pulse rate and said it had gone higher doing social dancing than it had ever gone in her regular aerobic dance class. If you keep moving, dancing will give you the same benefit you'd get from any aerobic activity, plus it helps you tone up and brightens your mood."

Studies have shown that ballroom dancing can boost the cardiovascular system in the same way as more traditional aerobic activities--such as jogging and biking. "Even beginners can get an effective workout with ballroom dancing," says Steven Loy, Ph.D., co-director of the exercise physiology laboratory at California State University at Northridge. Several dances--including the waltz, cha-cha, and quick step--raise dancers' heart rates into the range recommended for cardiovascular fitness, according to research Loy conducted with physical therapist Maureen Parker.

People who dance continuously at a moderate intensity for 20 to 60 minutes, three to five times per week, will meet the American College of Sports Medicine's guidelines for aerobic fitness. And even those who dance vigorously for five or ten minutes, then rest, then dance again, will be doing a form of "interval training," says Dr. Loy, that carries significant cardiovascular benefit.

drudgery, so they won't do it," he says. "But ballroom dancing is so enjoyable, it has the potential to get people moving who might otherwise not try. Plus, it's easier on the joints and skeletal system than jogging."

For those interested in burning calories cheek-to-cheek, "moderate ballroom dancing can bum between 250 and 300 calories per hour," reports the University of California Wellness Letter. "Fast, vigorous dancing burns upwards of 400 calories per hour."

Since "any dance can be performed with different intensities, the amount of exercise afforded ultimately depends as much on the dancer as on the dance," notes Phil Martin, a dance instructor at California State University at Long Beach. His research indicated that doing the swing raised the greatest proportion of dancers' heart rates into the "exercise benefit zone." Next came the polka, followed by the Viennese waltz and the mambo.

Dancing can be so vigorous that "people with heart disease may find themselves getting some angina," notes exercise physiologist Thomas G. Allison of the Mayo Clinic, who cautions older people and those with heart disease to consult their doctors before beginning any new exercise program. "It's important to start out with slow dances and gradually increase our ace."

Ballroom dance is just one of the varied forms of dance now being taught to seniors.

"Dance for seniors is an important area of growth in our profession," says Rebecca Hutton, executive director of the National Dance Association, an organization of dance teachers and professionals. "More and more dance teachers are going into retirement homes and senior centers and offering classes. Today's seniors don't want to just play cards or do crafts anymore, they want to get moving. When you turn on the music and say, |let's dance,' their faces light up. With the American population aging, we're going to see more and more of this trend."

Dancing can provide a special boost to people with arthritis, says Manhattan dance teacher Milton Feher, a former professional dancer who specializes in helping arthritis sufferers regain use of stiff joints. "Learning very simple ballet and jazz movements educates people about how to manage their bodies," says Feher, whose own bout with arthritis in his knees helped him develop his teaching techniques. "People with arthritis are much relieved when they learn that every joint has a certain ideal posture. When you learn the proper alignment, it allows your muscles to relax. And when you know how to relax, the body rights itself."

Dancing also can help relieve stress. "It's one of the best things you can do after a divorce," says Carol Jackson of Rochester, Michigan, who began ballroom dancing after her marriage broke up 11 years ago. "Dancing allows you to get back into socializing with people in a very warm, non-threatening atmosphere."

Now publisher of Dance Letter, a bi-monthly newsletter about dancing for physical and emotional well-being, Jackson says, "Look at the faces of people who are dancing. You'll never see a sad face on the dance floor."

"If I'm depressed, down, or tired, dancing will energize me," says 87-year-old Margaret Lee of Silver Spring, Maryland, who can do the triple swing "as fast as the kids can do it. Dancing is more spiritual than any other form of exercise, it really lifts you up. To me, dancing is life itself."

Lack of a partner is no reason to stay off the dance floor. "I remember one lady in a senior center who came to my class and almost started crying because she'd lost her husband," recalls Illinois dance teacher Ollie Mae Ray. "I told her that's one more reason why she should come out and dance with us. When you're dancing, the heavy burden of losing a loved one leaves you."

Line dances are ideal for people without partners, notes Ray who has compiled nearly a hundred line dances--from the "Alley Cat" to the "King Tut Strut"--into a new "Encyclopedia of Line Dances" just published by the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance in Reston, Virginia.

"Physically, socially, and mentally, line dancing is especially rich for the body and soul," Ray says. "It's as old as dance itself, yet also the most contemporary of today's dances."

Sometimes, people's partners who aren't interested in dancing change their minds once they try. When Reba Reinhardt decided to fulfill a lifelong dream of signing up for ballroom dance lessons after she retired from Eli Lilly in Indianapolis, her husband reluctantly decided to go along.

"At first it worried me something awful because I felt self-conscious," admits George Reinhardt, who has now been an avid dancer for four years. "Dancing really builds you up in lots of ways."

The Reinhardts take a weekly class, attend area dances, and practice frequently in a mini-ballroom in their basement. "It's one of the best things I've ever done," says Reba Reinhardt. "I've loved dancing since I was a little girl, but I never had the opportunity before to take lessons. It's kept me active and limber, it's opened doors to meeting new people, and it's great fun."

Dancing also nourishes creativity and confidence, enthusiasts say.

"Whatever artistic expression I have can come out in my dancing," says Kay Vaughan, a farmer and teacher from Canton, Ohio, who started dancing six years ago to prepare for his daughter's wedding. "My wife and I liked our dance lessons so much we never quit. I'm much stronger physically, I can touch my toes for the first time, and I can compete with the 20-year-olds."

But possibly its greatest benefit, say advocates, is that dancing keeps you young.

"Look at George Balanchine," notes Patricia McBride, former prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet and now professor of dance at Indiana University in Bloomington. "He'd rehearse all day, then have performances at night, seven performances a week. And in his 60s and 70s he could dance full out."

After all, Fred Astaire lived to be 88, Ginger Rogers is 80 (birthdate July 16, 191 1) and Gene Kelly is 79 (August 23, 1912). Bob Hope is 88 and he's been known to teach a two-step to friends in high places.

"Senior adults . . . bring to dance an expressive body filled with life experiences," notes Liz Lerman, artistic director of Washington, D.C.'s Dance Exchange and a pioneer in the field of dance for seniors. Speaking on Capitol Hill at a recent hearing on "Exercise, Health and Aging," Lerman told the House Select Committee on Aging that, "Seeing older people dance explodes two stereotypes. One is who gets to be the dancers. The other is what we think older people can do, and indeed, what we might expect of the aging process."

Lerman's older students have reported a variety of rejuvenating experiences as a result of dancing--including one man who was able to take baths again, for the first time in five years, because dance class had retaught him how to get down and up.

These kinds of physical insights should be available to all people, said Lerman, who concluded: "I want to live in a world where it would be natural to say, |When I retire I want to become a dancer.'"


* United States Amateur Ballroom Dancers Association, for general information call Bonnie Guerin at 1-800-447-9047, for information about programs for college and high school students call 1-707-429-9010. * Encyclopedia of Line Dances, by Ollie Mae Ray, published by the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education Recreation and Dance, $21.95 plus shipping and handling. Call 1-800-321-0789. * The National Dance Association, 1900 Association Drive, Reston, Virginia 22091. * A variety of videotapes from Sodanceabit teach ballroom dance from the West Coast swing to the polka; some include a workout. Prices range from $24.95 to $39.95, available through the SatEvePost Society.
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Author:Krucoff, Carol
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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