- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

Few people question the assertion that dancing and energetic movement in general have health benefits.

“Joy of Motion teaches and encourages people of all ages who want to integrate movement into their lives for better physical and mental health,” reads a brochure from the popular local dance center.

Just how beneficial and in what way is open to interpretation. But giving amateurs a chance to simulate artistry while exercising their cardiovascular system and improving their body tone must work because group dance classes have gained a foothold in fitness clubs. Afro-Brazilian Workout, City Rhythms, Muscle Ballet, Cardio Dance, Ballecore, to name a few, are rhythm-driven sessions that at times resemble an audition for a Broadway chorus line more than an exercise regimen.

Instructors are choreographers as well as coaches who work against a background of Latin, pop, hip-hop and show tunes.

“It’s trend-driven,” admits Sarah Lengyel, marketing and operations director of Results the Gym on Capitol Hill and at Dupont Circle, which features Afro-Brazilian, Cardio Dance and Urban Funk classes.

“We’ve had dance classes for several years because we wanted something different from traditional aerobics and because some people don’t like the same old routine of traditional aerobics. And it’s different from stretching because of the tempo. With dance you have to move and use a lot of space.”

“The style of movement is different from plain aerobics,” says Harold Sanco, Results’ group fitness director. “We can do a V-step, which is making a V shape with your legs moving in and out to the side. In Urban Funk, we may add arms and hips with shoulders for style. With aerobics generally, you are working only one part of the body at a time.”

Bruce Chiu, manager of Fitness First in Alexandria, appraises the value of such classes in simpler terms. “You cannot have a person listen to music and not move their foot, and that is the beginning of fitness,” he says, adding that “if it’s not fun, you won’t do it.”

Donna Barker, coordinator of the dance program at Glen Echo Partnership for Arts and Culture at Glen Echo Park, vouches for dancing’s emotional and physical benefits, largely because touching is involved in the pairs classes she teaches.

“Dancing combines everything that makes a person happy,” she says. “Even a fox trot is good exercise because the posturing, whether you lead or follow, requires tightening the abdominal muscles, what [Joseph] Pilates says is the powerhouse of strength. Fox trot is a slow swing, and if you do that for three hours, you are going to feel it.”

How one class differs from another depends on the talent and intention of the instructor, but a few basics apply.

Clients of gyms and fitness centers often have tried other, conventional methods of exercise or else seek to integrate dance moves along with yoga, stretch and treadmill work, none of which focuses on style per se and almost all of which involve repetitious movement. Participants like the novelty and the fact that they aren’t required to wear special shoes or dress. Most turn up in loose-fitting athletic clothing and sneakers.

Just ask Debora Lietz of Waterford, Va., who is seven months pregnant and participates fully in Tim Roberts’ City Rhythms class at Sports Club/LA in Northwest. Her doctor encourages her to stay active and endorses this highly energetic dance class. “As long as I feel OK,” she says.

Mr. Roberts, a professional dancer who has appeared in Broadway shows, also claims among a dozen or more regular attendees his dermatologist, a Sports Club/LA yoga teacher and a D.C. assistant district attorney.

“It helps your mind and body coordination,” says District architect Sidney Rasekh, 50, the only man in the group.

“It’s like an MTV video; it’s filling a need a lot of people have when young of wanting to be a dancer,” Mr. Roberts says of the nature of the class he created three years ago.

His instructions, delivered rapid-fire under spotlights over the high-decibel sound of top-40 tunes, resemble those of an Army sergeant drilling his troops. “Grab, throw, kick turn,” he shouts, standing with his back to the mirror facing the group. “Your heart’s pounding, isn’t it?” he asks, smiling broadly.

The club’s latest offering, to begin Jan. 15, is called Ballecore, a mix of Pilates, yoga and ballet done with an individual short wood barre held perpendicular to the body to increase spinal flexibility and strengthen abdominal muscles.

In contrast to clients of Sports Club/LA, Fitness First or Results the Gym, students in Joy of Motion’s Broadway Jazz class, taught by Doug Yuell in Northwest, wear tights and special dance shoes for optimum flexibility and perfection of form. Visual expression here can count as much as the steps that make up new combination moves in each week’s dance sequence.

“Remember that dance truly is a synthesis of body, mind and spirit, whereas in a fitness center on a treadmill, you engage the body and you might engage your mind, but some of what is missing is the soulful and artistic side,” says Mr. Yuell, a youthful 43-year-old who wins high praise from class members. Broadway Jazz, which he originated more than 10 years ago, is meant to force a person to think about body alignment and flexibility while putting personality into play.

The approach has won over Beth Webb, a former aerobics teacher from Ashburn, Va. “I’m 48 and feel 28,” she says. Jazz choreographer and teacher Katherine Campbell, who lives and works in both Sterling, Va., and Milan, Italy, and who comes to class whenever she is in the Washington area, dropped 10 pounds over the summer.

Weight loss isn’t the goal, though. Most of Mr. Yuell’s students are slender and well-proportioned. That includes a tall, white-haired mathematician who somehow manages to keep her glasses on throughout the vigorous 90-minute Friday morning session. “I’m 68,” she volunteers proudly.

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