Dance Dance Revolution!

By Julie Humphreys, Step UP Director
Courtesy of  Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living Magazine June 2012

Now I know why so many contestants on the popular TV show “Dancing with the Stars” lose weight. Dancing is one heck of a workout! I learned this when I competed in a local dance competition recently called “Dancing with the Celebrities.” This was the fifth year that Christian Youth Theater (CYT), a theater arts program for children, has put on the fund raising event. Community members with some recognition are paired up with local dance experts and choreographers to perform a two to three minute dance routine at the Bing Crosby Theater in front of several hundred people. No problem for those of us who have been on television or stage and are familiar with microphones, lights, and audiences, rights?! Wrong, I know I speak for a good number of other “celebrities” when I say there is just something about putting it out there physically that is terrifying!  Hence, the challenge, the uncertainty, and hopefully, finally the fun and satisfaction of discovering your body can do things you didn’t think it could!

Kristine Lyons is the artistic director for CYT. She has a great summary of what those asked to dance go through during their journey to the Crosby Theater. She says at first they are surprised they’re asked to compete, they doubt their ability to dance, then they meet their choreographer and have a glimmer of hope that they can do it, next they begin to practice and quickly go right back to “I can’t do this”.  That scenario held true for me and for Judy Lee who was kind enough to share her story. She hopes to encourage others to find a way to put physical activity back in their lives and just maybe they will drop a few clothing sizes toward better health as she did!

Judy is the special events coordinator at Catholic Charities. She attended the dance competition last year and thought “Oh my gosh, I’d love to do this.” So she was thrilled when she was asked to compete in this year’s event. Judy says she was a shy, quiet child but she always loved to dance. While her sisters took piano, she danced her way through ballet, jazz, and modern dance classes and performances right through college. But then the real world hit and she got busy with work and children and didn’t dance for decades. She also never replaced the intense physical workouts she got from dance, instead doing some low level exercise like walking. So at 55 when her brain said “YES, I want to dance again”, her body said “WOAH”. Judy knew she could pick up dance steps easily and she understood choreography from her dance days. But after the first few practices Judy realized her body was in for a challenge. She could feel muscles she forgot she had from her rib cage to her feet. Hot baths were her best friend after those initial practices. Still Judy was smart and didn’t overdo things and get injured. By the time the contest came around she felt good physically and was proud of herself for the effort.

On performance night, Judy felt like she had already won personally; she felt good, she was more conscientious about exercise and what she ate, she brought in respectable money for the fundraiser, she made new friends, and she was on stage for the first time in decades. “It was pure enjoyment, it was a thrill”. And you would never know Judy was nervous about messing up the dance routine since she and her partner, dance instructor Howard Peake, won “fan favorite” that night.

Howard’s wife Kathy choreographed their dance, a ballroom style called jive. It’s a lively variation of the Jitterbug. Kathy has taught dance in one form or another for more than 20 years. She finds that “Most people feel better about themselves when they realize they can dance”. “Once someone discovers they can move, particularly if they have been labeled clumsy, it can be very releasing.”

It takes strength and athleticism to dance and dance requires a heightened sense of body awareness and a fine level of control. Consider the muscle tone it takes for a dancer to lift his partner over his head. Posture is huge in dance. Kathy says you can’t partner dance if you don’t have good posture because you lose the kinesthetic connection with the other person. Dance can greatly improve posture as it uses core muscles that can literally help reshape and realign the body. On the flip side bad posture can limit one’s ability to move because it hurts to move a body that is out of alignment. Slouching may feel relaxing but it actually creates more tension in your muscles and puts more pressure on your joints. When you do go to move, your muscles are already tired which puts you at risk for injury. Solving the posture issue, can free people to move

Ashley D’Lynn Cooper knows that. She’s a 28 year old dance teacher who has scoliosis; a painful, abnormal curving of the spine. She understands that dance is what keeps her pain free. Her ballet and jazz work her core and help her realign her posture; hips over knees, over ankles, over toes.  She says because dance is so focused on the extremities like hands and feet, it’s easy to forget about the core. You have to work to find core those muscles and then train them. Physical therapist Stephanie Ota of Physical Therapy Associates in Spokane sees patients from dancers to football players. She knows dancers use their core very well which in turn helps them with balance, coordination, strength, and flexibility. When she treats a dancer it’s usually for an overuse injury from the repetitive nature of dance. But most people don’t dance at that level.  Ota says the nice thing about dance is there are all different types and levels. She says not everyone wants to exercise but people do like to have fun and dance is fun so people don’t think of it as exercise and reap the benefits of being physically active. Plus, people of all ages can dance, just visit one of our senior centers!

I practiced for Dancing with the Celebrities at the Southside Senior and Community Center because my coach Deanar Young teaches Zumba classes there. Watch out on Thursday nights because the elderly crowd that gathers for ballroom/swing lessons and dance can put you to shame! You’ll find a lot of people in their 60’s and 70’s, enjoying the movement, the mental challenge of dance, and the social aspect. If ballroom dance doesn’t appeal to you, there’s hula, clogging a tap grandmas group, and more, reminding us that dance truly is a universal language and an art!

Deanar considers himself and athlete and an artist. And as my coach I would absolutely agree. This Spokane resident danced five years with the Lion King and spent years doing major shows in Los Vegas and elsewhere. He has taught dance for 25 years and says his greatest joy is witnessing a student “get” a dance step they’ve struggled with. For him its second nature, for most of us it’s foreign, which is odd because Deanar says dance is really doing things our bodies already know how to do. “Dance is life” says Deanar “and dance moves have a rhythm and flow like life itself”.

Hmmm, here’s an example Deanar used with me while trying, practice after practice to teach me a dance style called merengue. Merengue is described as a fun dance that’s easy to learn. But somewhere in the learning, I temporarily lost the fun as I struggled to get the basics of this dance down. Dancing the merengue is like marching where you step left right, left right, left right in time to the music. Doesn’t get any more basic, right? Except somewhere my hips went east when my body went west, or some variation of and when I added my arms, well, the only word I can think of for the outcome is spastic! Humbling for someone who considers herself coordinated and fit. So Deanar appealed to life. I’ve been a runner most of my life so he used that. He had me move as I would naturally while running; hips, legs, and arms all flow together without thinking about it.  Then he had me apply that to merengue and I started to get it. When I did get it, I understood the joy and the fun started.

Deanar is a master at using analogies to help people understand dance. He says intellectually people generally understand what you want them to do they just can’t always get their bodies to respond. Say when someone thinks they can’t do a move that requires them to get back up from the floor Deanar reminds them they already know how to shift their weight and get up. It’s not a lot different from getting up after bending down to the lower kitchen cupboard. Dance he says is life movements to music! There’s actually a trend in exercise now that uses a similar philosophy called functional fitness. The focus is training the body to do real-life activities in real-life positions.

Back to Judy Lee, the 2012 fan favorite from Spokane’s Dancing with the Celebrities. With the competition over, she has vowed not to fall into old habits of not exercising enough. She is using the dance competition as a springboard to lifelong physical activity. Prior to the competition, her doctor had advised her to start exercising regularly and intentionally suggesting she find something she’s passionate about. Interesting how the invitation to the dance competition came shortly after that doctor visit. Judy has rediscovered her childhood passion and has no intention of losing it again. She plans to stay involved with dance in some way not only for the fun of it, but to be in better shape and to take care of herself.

As for me, someone who has remained active since childhood, I learned a new twist to my physical activity routine. My dance in the competition was an “exercise dance”. As an old (let’s go with former!) “aerobics” instructor (think 1980’s ,Jane Fonda, leg warmers!), cheerleader, and current Pilates regular,  I was thrilled with that dance genre. I knew I could always default to jumping jacks and kicks.  But Deanar stretched me and insisted on true “dance” moves in the routine. He challenged me to teach my body to do something new and while difficult at times, I will say it was fun, an incredible workout, and truly gave me a sense of satisfaction. My hips haven’t quite recovered but hey, I do have some new moves and I’m not afraid to use them!  And I have a new appreciation of what true dancers have always known. “Dance is your pulse, your heartbeat, your breathing. It’s the rhythm of your life. It’s the expression in time and movement, in happiness, joy, sadness, and envy.”  – Jacques d’Amboise

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