December 12, 2011

Natural High: Ballroom Dancing

After years of dancing around everyone else’s problems, one woman finally takes the lead in her own life 

Kelsey Allen
For many years, Linda’s* life wasn’t about her. It was about her alcoholic husband. And then it was about her newborn son. And then it was about her alcoholic ex-husband. And then it was about recovering from a car accident in which a a drunk driver hit Linda’s car head-on and left her with a fractured skull. And then it was about her drug-addicted son.
It wasn’t until she “detached with love” from the problems of her son and ex-husband that she found herself. And she found herself in the most unlikely of places: on the dance floor. “I had been going to [Al-Anon] meetings for a long, long time, but it was time for me to take the next step, which was doing something for myself and had nothing to do with [my son],” Linda says. “It had to be about me.”
Linda has been ballroom dancing now for a little more than three years. She took lessons for a year and then started regularly going to socials at the dance studio she frequented. When she was just beginning, she recalls how important it was to be on the dance floor as much as possible.
It was at these socials where Linda really found her groove. “It was a very conscious choice of stepping into something that would be a lifestyle more than a hobby. It has provided me with a community that is very healthy. And as a single person, it has provided me with a social life.”
Three times a week Linda gets dressed up and goes out on the town with friends she has met through dancing. “Everybody is laughing,” Linda says of these nights. “There is nobody sitting in the corner with a bottle. Alcohol simply doesn’t exist.”
Jill DeMario, dancing veteran and owner of three Arthur Murray dance studios in Chicago, says the lack of drinking is probably due to the fact that dancing is such an active sport. “Health-wise, dancing is definitely great exercise,” DeMario says. “Depending on what someone wants to get out of dancing, we can structure a program around cardio, or we can do the rumba, which has a lot of isolated movements in the abs.”
Other health benefits of ballroom dancing include:
  • Flexibility: Most styles of dance require dancers to be able to bend and stretch, so stretching exercises are often a part of any dancer’s routine.
  • Strength: When jumping and leaping around the studio, muscles get a serious workout. Dancers also strengthen their muscles because they are often exerting force against their own body.
  • Endurance: Linda says after a good night of dancing, she feels like she just got done with a three-hour workout. And she has. Dancing is a great cardiovascular exercise that will train your body to be able to work hard longer.
But more important to Linda than the physical health benefits (although she says she feels better now than when she was 25) are the mental and emotional benefits that come from dancing. “I needed something that was in the moment. When you are dancing, you are talking about one second at a time. You have to be so present because you are listening to music, moving to the beat and anticipating the next step.”
In addition to stress relief (it is impossible to dance the cha-cha while thinking about a work deadline), dancing can also improve the mind. “As we get older, it’s been a while since we’ve learned a new skill,” DeMario says. “Crossword puzzles and learning a new language are great for keeping those brain pathways active, but with dancing, you are doing something that is physically active.” In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers showed that because dancing is both physical, social and requires memorization of steps, it could actually reduce the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Another muscle that ballroom dancing can exercise: your fear muscle. If going to a ballroom dancing class alone sounds intimidating, Linda says, “You can be a beginner, and people will come up to you and ask you to dance.” She recalls of her first socials: “I would say 90 percent of the men will come up and say, ‘I was a beginner once, too. Let’s dance.’”
*Names have been changed.



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