When it comes to personifying the health benefits of dancing, Frankie Manning is Exhibit A.
One of the Lindy Hop's greatest innovators, Manning, 90, teaches the acrobatic dance at workshops around the world, including one last weekend in Catonsville.
"Dancing is a very good exercise and it's a wonderful exercise because it's a partner dance," says Manning, who invented the Lindy's hallmark "airstep," a move that sends a woman rolling over her partner's back and safely back to earth.
"You're not alone taking these exercises," Manning says by phone from his New York home. "In all these years that's what helped me keep my health up."
Those who think exercise is boring may not realize that social dancing has all the moves. Whether it's a slow waltz or a breathless jitterbug, dance is a comprehensive exercise that works the heart, mind and soul simultaneously.
Especially when practiced routinely, couples dancing, as well as line dancing, combines a cardiovascular workout with toning, muscle control and endurance training. Dance improves balance and flexibility and has been found in one study to help prevent dementia.
What's more, "you really develop a sense of discipline," says Tracey Vlahovic, a professor at the Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine and champion ballroom dancer. Dancing, Vlahovic adds, "teaches you spatial relationships. You have to know where you are in space and where your partner is."
For Lori Edwards, a nursing teacher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a doctoral student, weekly attendance at Baltimore's Friday Night Swing Club not only provides a solid aerobic workout, "it gives you an outlet to forget about everything."
Although she occasionally runs, walks and exercises at the pool and gym, Edwards, 47, considers dance to be "a regular form of exercise." It is "cardiac exercise, it's flexibility, it's fine motor and gross motor movement exercise," she says.
"Even more important probably is the ... mental health aspect," Edwards says. "You're connecting with dance partners and you're always learning how to relate to a new person through dance. It's nonthreatening, and it's fun."
Recognized as a sport by the International Olympic Committee, ballroom dancing can qualify as an effective form of exercise depending on your goal, says Dr. Andrew Tucker. The medical director of Sports Medicine and family practice physician at Union Memorial Hospital takes a cautious view of the overall physical benefits of social dancing.
"This kind of activity is not going to be of the magnitude that's going to impart a high level of fitness," he says.
But if your goal is to engage in 30 minutes of aerobic activity most days of the week, as recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine, then moderate dancing certainly qualifies, Tucker says.
The "social interaction" required by couples dancing is perhaps its most valuable health advantage, Tucker notes. The activity offers "positive reinforcement [for those] who have trouble staying with an exercise program."
In addition, dance is an "essentially fairly low impact" activity that can be easier on the joints than other activities, he points out.
Anecdotal evidence from veteran dancers, though, suggests that fast tempos and elaborate choreography make for a solid workout. Judging by sweat alone, a night of high-intensity spinning and turning is more strenuous than a sedate evening of fox-trotting.
According to www.caloriesperhour.com, a middle-aged woman of average height would burn 184 calories doing the foxtrot for one hour, and 294 calories if she spent that hour doing the jitterbug. Jogging burns 429 calories per hour, according to the Web site, but dancers will tell you it's not nearly as fun.
When Bianca Lavies enrolled in a beginners' swing dance class five years ago, the Annapolis photographer and author found an unanticipated benefit. "The first year, I started in March. By September, I had lost 30 pounds," says Lavies, who won't divulge her age. "It's not that I didn't do any other exercise," but swing dance "was the only thing that made me lose that weight. It was amazing."
Lavies began with dance lessons at a local high school. She remembers thinking, "Wow, if this makes me feel so good, then I should do more of it." Now, she swing dances three times a week. "When I'm on that dance floor, I'm so happy, I feel like a child having fun," she says.
Lavies believes that a night of serious swing dancing releases an internal shower of uplifting endorphins. That's the only explanation for the night she danced and danced, oblivious to a wrist she had broken during an earlier tumble. Then, "of course I danced with my cast for a month," she says.