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Fitness fans say, 'Let's just dance'

First, we heeded Jim Fixx's call and jogged to stay in shape. Then, we donned our leg warmers and aerobicized with Jane Fonda. We might have given kickboxing and Spinning a shot along the way, with a dollop of tai chi or Pilates thrown in for good measure. But these days, gyms look more and more like dance studios as fitness buffs merengue and plie their way to firm bodies.

Health clubs nationwide are increasingly offering workouts inspired by dance, from ballet, hula, hip-hop and salsa to just about everything in between. You'll find exercise classes set to live African drumming, country line dancing and even striptease. In Baltimore, many gym regulars fit a belly-dance class in between Body Pump and yoga.

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"It's come full circle," says local fitness club owner and nationally recognized aerobics instructor Lynne Brick. "It's a big trend in the industry to get back to our roots and get back to dance."

The trend can be ascribed in part to the aging of the baby boom generation -- boomers are seeking workouts that can help make up for years of high-impact exercise that wasn't particularly kind to their now middle-aged joints. And after years of health club workouts, veteran exercisers are simply looking for new and fun ways to stay in shape.

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With gym membership up 7 percent nationwide last year, International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association spokesman Bill Howland says gyms are just trying to keep up with their broadening demographic.

"There's an interest in something other than Jane Fonda aerobics and Arnold Schwarzenegger weightlifting," he says. "Nothing's wrong with either of those, but there are only so many people to whom that appeals."

Fitness experts generally believe that anything that gets people moving -- safely -- is a good thing. So why not dance, which is known to improve both coordination and balance in addition to providing a workout?

Just as the music world saw an explosion in the popularity of Latin performers, Latin-dance-based fitness is hot, hot, hot. The creators of Zumba, a workout that sets merengue, salsa and other international dance moves to high-energy music, claim to have sold some $20 million worth of videos since its infomercials began airing in June 2002.

Company president Alberto Aghion believes that in a war-torn world, people are tiring of aggressive, fight-style workouts like the once-hot Tae Bo.

Zumba, Aghion says, "is more like a party. You're having fun instead of fighting. You're dancing and not feeling like you're working out. But without realizing it, you're working all the major muscles. It's a blast."

(Locally, you can find Zumba classes in Silver Spring, taught by Debbie Wilson. For more information, call Wilson at 240-441-1049. For more information about Zumba, see the Web site www.zumba.com.)

Those more classically minded might turn to the New York City Ballet Workout, available on video and in many gyms nationwide, although not currently in Maryland.

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Why ballet? "You see dancers walking down the street and you notice the posture, the alignment, the tone, the muscles being very long and lean, the grace and poise," says New York City Ballet Workout manager and former ballerina Kate Solmssen. "People see that and think, 'I'm not getting that in my workout!' "

The workout, Solmssen explains, won't teach you how to dance Swan Lake. Rather, it uses ballet techniques "to give people overall better fitness capability. To move better in everyday life and feel more aligned, to have better self-esteem and enhance their bodies. It's great variety for cross training."

A rival program called Balletone is available at some area gyms, including Meadow Mill Athletic Club and LifeBridge Health & Fitness, where members "went through withdrawal" when the popular class was temporarily suspended, says LifeBridge's Shelley Seff. Solmssen points out that only those with extensive ballet training can be authorized to teach her workout, while dance background is encouraged but not required for Balletone instructors.

And then there's belly dance. About three years ago, local teacher Piper Reid Hunt of Halethorpe noticed a sudden spike of students taking her classes for a workout rather than as an art form. But she's not complaining.

"[It's] just one more chance for people to find out how beautiful and gorgeous it is," says Hunt, whose classes at Meadow Mill Athletic Club are open to non-gym members as well.

"I absolutely love it," says belly-dance student Emily Frye, 28, a first-grade teacher from Hampden who works out at Meadow Mill. "It's a very good confidence-builder. It makes you very in tune with your body and very aware of your body."

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Resources

If you'd like to give dance-based fitness a try but would rather do so in the privacy of your own living room, some of the most popular workouts are available on video, including:

* The New York City Ballet Workout. After publishing a workout book in 1997, the ballet created its first video in 2001. A sequel was released in May. Set to classical music, the sequel includes a 60-minute workout and a chance to learn some simple choreography from George Balanchine's Tarantella. A VHS tape is $14.95; DVD is $24.95. www.nycballet.com.

* Zumba. High-energy Latin dance exercise tapes created by Colombian fitness instructor Alberto "Beto" Perez. (The story goes that he forgot his tapes for an aerobics class one day and stuck in the salsa music that was in his bag.) For more information or to buy tapes, visit www.zumba.com. A two-volume set including a resistance-training Dyna-Band is $37.99 on VHS or DVD.


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