After undergoing open heart surgery following a heart attack last year, doctors told Nancy Sullivan that line dancing saved her life.
As her doctors explained, Sullivan said, line dancing helped her in two ways: the physical movements provided exercise and remembering each step helped mentally.
"I didn't even think about this until the doctors told me," she said.
Sullivan said she had no doubt she would return to the dance floor, which she did in a matter of weeks after surgery. Sullivan, who turned 80 last week and was to celebrate with a "Dance with Nance" party on Sunday, said she has no plans on stopping any time soon.
Growing up, Sullivan said her mother would tell her there was never a time she didn't dance.
After retiring from a career doing clerical work for the B&O Railroad, she began teaching line dancing, which she has done for about 20 years.
She has taught at the Catonsville Senior Center for the last 15 years, she said. She teaches three classes a week through the Community College of Baltimore County — a beginner's class on Mondays and advanced classes on Tuesdays and Fridays.
The average class has between 18 and 20 students, she said. Her busy time is fall and winter, she said, as her students can be found gardening, on vacation or babysitting during the spring and summer months.
On a recent Friday in the senior center's ballroom, Sullivan led a group of seniors through dances, but she didn't have to do much talking.
She comes with a list of songs and their accompanying step sheets — a page with instructions on the moves for the dance. She finds most of her step sheets online, she said, and plays songs from her phone through a speaker.
"She has a good following," said Nicole Sheehan, director of the senior center, describing her as youthful and enthusiastic. "The students really enjoy learning from her."
Among those students is 76-year-old Judy Watson, who has taken part in Sullivan's classes since 2005. Watson said Sullivan never calls out any students if they are struggling during a class.
"She's the most wonderful teacher ever," Watson said. "I love her to death. Everybody does. She's special."
For Sullivan, dancing combines some of her favorite things — people and music. She has no interest staying home and watching television.
"I don't know not to have fun on the dance floor," she said. "I don't know how to do that, and I don't want to learn."
Dr. Stephen Davis, local board president of the American Heart Association and chairman of the Department of Medicine at University of Maryland School of Medicine, cited a February 2016 study in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings that demonstrated how good baseline physical fitness in a group of seniors can reduce the risk of death after a first heart attack.
"Physical fitness both reduces the risk of heart attacks but also increases the likelihood of survival," he said in an emailed statement.
Sullivan's doctor could not be reached for comment.