Health: Dancing

Get Up & Dance

Story Jason Browne | Photographs Luisa Porter

America is in the midst of a dance revolution.

This is not to be confused with “Dance Dance Revolution,” the popular video game. But “Dance Dance Revolution” is surely part of the dance revolution. Transplanted from college-town clubs to bourgeoisie living rooms via 13 seasons of “Dancing with the Stars” and a slew of motion-activated video games, “la baile revolución” is afoot. And the Golden Triangle may be the staging ground for more revolutionaries than you think.


Photographed by Luisa Porter.

The first thing aspiring freedom dancers must do is choose their goals. Some dance purely for enjoyment or to look like the dancers they see on TV. But the movement has gained considerable ground through the occupation of gyms and recreation centers, where dance is no longer just for physical expression, but a method for shedding inches and pounds.

The fitness subgenre of popular dance can be further customized based your personal fitness goals. If you’re not sure exactly what your fitness goals are, a more appropriate question may be: “How fast are you willing to shake it?”

Those individuals seeking a dance routine primarily to work up a sweat and secondarily to work on their moves would be well served to try the Latin-inspired sensation, Zumba.

Maggie Zillarroel, 37, of Starkville, took a shot at Zumba back in 2009. The native Venezuelan had spent her entire life dancing to Latin rhythms and needed an additional exercise component to keep her active between sporadic yoga and light weight training. She took a class at Mississippi University for Women and got hooked. Before the end of 2010 she was a certified instructor leading her own class at the Frank Phillips YMCA in Columbus.

“People love Zumba because it’s easygoing,” explains Zillarroel. “People move differently. I don’t expect professional choreography. I tell them, ‘Go with the flow and feel the music.’”

In Zillarroel’s case, the music is authentic Latin rhythms. Raised on salsa, merengue and cumbia, she prefers to stick to the roots of Zumba’s origin, including traditional Latin dance steps. However, Zumba’s scope has grown to encompass many styles of music and dance. At Mississippi State University’s Sanderson Center, you can find a room packed with hundreds of women bouncing to this year’s Top 40 hits.

Back in Columbus, Zillarroel regularly leads her own packed studio. But instead of college students, her participants range from middle-aged women to elementary school children (as long as they’re with an adult).

And that versatility, she explains, is precisely what makes Zumba so popular. There is no prerequisite to participate. You don’t have to be in shape; you can move at your own pace. You don’t have to know how to dance; just imitate the best you can. It’s a dance workout that conforms to the dancer.

“I teach three days a week. If someone comes to class on a regular basis, they can be up to speed in two weeks,” says Villarroel. “I don’t do anything crazy to scare people away. It’s about fun. I’ve had people on anti-depression treatment tell me this is better than medicine.”

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Another style of dance less commonly associated with exercise has also piqued the nation’s interest thanks to the novelty of watching celebrities on television try their hands and feet at the fox trot and various waltzes. But a splinter cell of ballroom dance revolutionaries native to Columbus says the traditional dances can be both physically and intellectually taxing.

Seasoned travelers Stephen and Frieda Burt were tired of watching from their table as couples swirled around the dance floor on the cruises they sometimes took to get away after they retired. They stumbled across a dance instructor nearly five years ago and jumped at the chance to learn. Fast-forward to one year ago and the Burts had built a guest house/game room in their back yard with a huge expanse of bare hardwood where they now host dance classes.

While the Burts lead a beginners’ dance course at MUW, they don’t consider themselves instructors. They still take advanced lessons, and so does their current instructor.

“Our instructor said if you’re taking classes from a pro and they aren’t taking classes, find another instructor,” says Frieda.

Once a week at their 1950s-inspired guest house, the couple hosts three to five additional couples for a beginners’ class, followed by a practice-time dance party, followed by an intermediate class for the couples who have stuck with the curriculum.

The Burts readily acknowledge theirs is a social style of dance; but Stephen, an avid tennis player, says the muscle control required to maintain posture, balance and cadence will work average dancers into a sweat on the spot and leave them sore the next day if they’re unaccustomed to the movements.

Frieda points out that the abdominals and quadriceps aren’t the only things being taxed. “It’s exercising your mind, too. You’re always thinking ‘With this technique I’ve got to hold my frame right. I’ve got to turn my head.’ And the lead person has to decide how to move,” she adds.

“You’ve got to work around traffic and decide where to go in a timely fashion so a lady can follow,” says Stephen of taking the lead during a tango or a waltz.

No one knows if the dance revolution will live long, but it may help you live longer.

Betty Lott, 87, founded the English School of Dance in Columbus 50 years ago; it’s now run by her daughter, Deborah Guist. The octogenarian had been dancing since she was 3 years old in her native England and continued until only a few years ago. The style of tap dancing she did professionally throughout her life wasn’t intended to keep her in shape, but it did just the same.

“It definitely helped. I was always slim,” she says of her lifetime of dance. “I recommend it for boys and girls. To me it’s one of the best exercises.”