Local dance classes keep Main Line minds and bodies sharp.
When Sonia Seifret of Penn Valley wants to strengthen her heart, increase her flexibility and pump up her endorphins, she doesn’t put on sweats and running shoes. She slips into a sequined gown with a red chiffon skirt and heads for the dance floor.
“It started with a free coupon to Arthur Murray in Narberth,” says the pert brunette, who describes herself as a “woman of a certain age.”
After learning the basic steps, Seifret entered competitions and won her share of trophies. In addition to polishing her foxtrot and cha-cha, ballroom dancing helps Seifret stay healthy and trim. “I’m diabetic, and dancing is fantastic exercise,” she says.
Medical research supports Seifret’s claim. Studies by California State Univer-sity at Long Beach found that 20 minutes of cha-cha, polka or swing gets heart rates up to near-maximum training rates. Even moderate ballroom dance burns between 250 and 300 calories per hour; vigorous dancing burns as many as 400 calories per hour.
And not only does ballroom dancing improve your cardio picture, it’s a great workout for your brain. In 2005, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that it lowers the risk of dementia; following complex dance steps in time to music is believed to be responsible.
“It’s like doing a crossword puzzle with someone in your arms,” says Tish Sweeney of Gladwyne who, along with husband Michael, had been teaching ballroom dancing on the Main Line for more than 30 years.
Sweeney traces her passion for dancing back to her high school prom. “I wanted to feel more comfortable with the Latin dances, so I took classes at Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Center City,” she says.
There, Sweeney found both her career and her partner for life. “I was 19, and Michael was 20,” she recalls.
Since then, the Sweeneys have been teaching Main Liners how to waltz at weddings, swing at reunions and add a touch of romance to their life. While Tish and Michael teach separately at locations throughout the area, together they host their popular bimonthly dances at the Cynwyd Club in Bala Cynwyd, which are open to the public and welcome dancers of all levels.
Many baby boomers are now taking their first dance classes for many reasons. For some, it’s knowing that all eyes will be on them at an upcoming wedding. For others, it’s a way to literally get back into the swing of things following a divorce or death of a spouse. And for many, it’s a chance to fulfill a dream: They don’t want to do more than just sit back and watch Dancing with the Stars—they want to be part of the magic.
ON A TUESDAY NIGHT in the basement of Ardmore Presbyterian Church, seven couples in Tish Sweeney’s advanced class navigate the intricate moves of the tango. A statuesque blonde with an easy-going manner, Sweeney encourages her flock with gentle reminders: “Step into the turn. Take your time. That’s better.”
They range in age from a pregnant young woman to grandparents.
Engineer Mike Carney, a silver-haired Richard Gere look-alike, tangos with his daughter Christine. “My wife Mary got me into this,” says Carney. “I was snoozing on the sofa and she said, ‘I’m signing us up for dance lessons.’”
Five years later, Carney is hooked. “It gives Mary and me something to do together, and I have wonderful memories of dancing at my youngest daughter’s wedding,” he says.
A wedding was the jump-start for doctors Ruth and Howard Rosenberg of Villanova. “We always sat out dances until our daughter’s wedding,” Ruth says.
“We started taking lessons with Tish four years ago, and now we look forward to weddings and bar mitzvahs. Our children are impressed.”
Suddenly the music switches from a foxtrot to a Latin beat. Couples change partners and Tish cuts in to give pointers on leading and following. “Each dance gives you something you need,” Sweeney states.
“The foxtrot is the most practical—especially for a bride and groom. The waltz develops balance and grace. The cha-cha involves quick thinking. The rhumba is good for confidence—samba for flexibility; the bolero for sensuality.”
Debbie Wimmer of Bala Cynwyd was married for 30 years before she convinced her husband, pediatrician Robert Wimmer, to take dance lessons. “We hired Tish to teach a group lesson at our daughter’s engagement party at the Cynwyd Club in 2004. Since then, Tish’s dance classes have become our date night.”
For the Wimmers, ballroom dance is part of a vigorous exercise regime that includes squash, running and biking.
While some couples prefer to dance with each other, having a partner isn’t necessary. Bryn Mawr College psychology professor Leslie Rescorla doesn’t have a choice. Her husband lives in New England, where he’s a professor at the University of Vermont. “I’m teaching him how to dance,” says Rescorla who looks forward to going to swing dances when she’s in Burlington, Vt.
Taking her first ballroom dance class was a personal breakthrough for Rescorla. After nine years of lessons, she’s so confident she assists with beginners’ classes.
With their fluidity of movement, perfect posture and happy demeanor it seems unlikely that any of the couples in Sweeney’s class could be a day over 40. Yet, many are empty-nesters and retirees. “Ballroom dancers look younger because they carry themselves better,” says Sweeney. “With the right dance posture, you automatically lose two inches in your waist. Plus, they develop social confidence and smile more.”
Sweeney says it takes about two years of practice to look good on the dance floor. “First, you have to learn the figure, the basic steps. Then you learn styling, how to look good on the floor,” she says. “Next comes partnership, how to lead and anticipate your partner’s moves. Finally, you need to focus on expression. If you’re not smiling and having a good time, you’re not doing it right.”
A student of Sweeney’s for nine years, Main Line builder Donald Murtaugh has incorporated ballroom dancing into an active lifestyle that includes skiing, yoga and golf. When asked how ballroom dancing relates to the macho world of the construction business, Murtaugh grins. “It takes a man to be a dancer,” he says.
Either way, it’s never too late to start. “We had a gentleman who was 95 and an absolute charmer,” says Sweeney.
Got Dance Fever?
Here’s where to go to find a cure.
Main Line School Night
A wide range of dance classes for all levels are offered weeknights at Lower Merion, Conestoga and Harriton high schools. (610) 687-0460, mainlineschoolnight.org.
Sweeney teaches ballroom dance classes for all levels at Ardmore Presbyterian Church, the Hilltop School in Bryn Mawr and other locations. Dances on alternate Sundays at the Cynwyd Club. (610) 896-5221.
Carlos Maldonado offers dance classes and dance parties for all levels at locations in Montgomery and Delaware counties. (610) 687-5650, carouselballroom.com.
International and American-style ballroom classes for couples, groups and children, along with dance parties and coaching for competitions. 1 W. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore; (610) 642-2525, dancesportpa.com.
Arthur Murray Dance Center
Free introductory lesson; instruction for all skill levels. Classes days and evenings. 913 Montgomery Ave., Narberth; (610) 668-8870, amdancestudio.com.
Dance Pop Quiz
1. Who was Fred Astaire’s first professional dance partner?
2. What movie popularized the Hustle?
3. What direction do couples move when they waltz?
4. Is it possible to dance on water?
5. What dance did Al Pacino do in Scent of a Woman?
6. Which dance was originally performed by two men?
7. How many “lanes” are there on the dance floor?
8. Which dance includes skipping, running and hopping?
9. How many calories can you burn in a 20-minute swing class?
10. When did ballroom dancing first appear in the Olympics?
Answers: 1. His sister, Adele. 2. Saturday Night Fever with John Travolta. 3. Counter-clockwise. 4. Yes. Go to ballroomdancecruise.com. 5. The tango. 6. The tango. 7. Two—an inside lane for slow dancers and an outside lane for faster-moving couples. 8. The Quick Step. 9. 1,000. 10. 1998.