Social Dance as exercise: Just do-si-do it

Whatever your opinion about Canada, the time I spent there as a bureau chief many years ago opened my eyes to an important fact: It is possible to exercise and drink at the same time.

Some Canadians suggest that’s why curling was invented — something to do while you stood around the frozen pond with a bottle. I know this isn’t true. Why would you be drinking outside in the winter, anyway?

But the sentiment is worth examining. People who don’t exercise regularly often use the excuse that it’s too monotonous: same old treadmill, same old bike, same old yoga instructor.

There is an obvious solution. Either find a physical pursuit that is fun in itself, or find one that can be combined with other stuff so it doesn’t become a bore.

Here is a suggestion that, as a guy, with all the usual guy inhibitions, took me a long time get comfortable with: Set aside the leftover high-school anxiety and explore the area’s surprisingly rich social dance scene.

I say “surprisingly” because once you open a door on this, you can find something to do virtually any night of the week: the usually raucous two-step and line-dancing scene at Nick’s Nightclub in Alexandria on Friday, the salsa dances at Habana Village on Saturday, the zydeco programs that Dancing by the Bayou puts on at places such as Gypsy Sally’s, or the more obscure and very old-school events you can find at American Legion posts and similar spots around the area.

What do they have in common?

The chance to get a decent bit of exercise while sipping a cold beer, hanging out with friends and unwinding from the week. This might be a bad thing to say in a health and fitness column. And I am sure there are many shuddering at the idea.

But let’s be honest: You’re going to go out anyway. Why not add movement?

This was a bit of a revelation to me, starting probably three years or so back.

My wife, Eleanor, spent much of our nearly 30-year marriage trying to persuade me to go dancing more. That translated into one halfhearted series of Arthur Murray lessons in Cairo, and, once we were back in the United States, the occasional trip to one of the regular dances at Glen Echo park.

It never took because (a) I wasn’t consistent enough to develop any level of comfort or confidence, and therefore did not enjoy myself, and (b) in those circumstances dancing was all there was to do. Glen Echo is a national treasure that, for the unfamiliar, has a great diversity of dance programming that you can pursue four nights a week, whether you like blues, contra dancing, swing, waltz, tango, ballroom, you name it.

But the drawback is that you can only dance.

The scales fell from my eyes when a contact at, of all places, the British Embassy steered us to Nick’s, a country bar in Northern Virginia that has live music on Fridays and Saturdays and dance lessons several nights a week: country two-step and line-dancing on Friday, a mix of styles on Tuesday, West Coast swing on Thursday.

More important, as Eleanor and I came to appreciate, it was a place where you could slouch at the bar, take a lesson, dance a bit, slouch at the bar some more, talk, dance a bit more, get something to eat, call it a night.

It takes some commitment; any unfamiliar activity will be a bit intimidating at first, and whatever club or course of instruction or style of dance you choose, all I can say is to stick with it for a reasonable time. You don’t need a partner and you don’t need to be Fred Astaire, but you do need to show up.

The payoff is exercise integrated into an evening out. And for us it was enough fun that we kept going back and eventually expanded the repertoire with swing dancing — Gottaswing has great programming and lots of sponsored dances across the region — and have begun to dabble in salsa, which also has a deep bench of places to learn and practice. The cultural breadth of this area is one of its great strengths: Name a dance style or type of music you are interested in, and you’ll probably find an organization promoting it.

How does it stack up as exercise? It depends on what type of dance you pursue and how hard you pursue it, of course: A fast-paced, eight-minute reel at Glen Echo’s Friday night contra dances will leave you sweating; a slow waltz on a Sunday afternoon barely raises the heart rate.

But in general this is exercise at an easy to moderate pace, perfect for the type of longer but gentler sessions that physiologists recommend you mix in over the week with shorter, more intense workouts. There are side benefits as well: balance, coordination, better stability in the ankles and knees, and for men a chance to rediscover your hips (yes, they exist, and they are used to turn your body).

Using heart rate and activity monitors, I gathered data on three nights out recently: a swing dance at Glen Echo, a zydeco session at Gypsy Sally’s on K Street in Georgetown and a Tuesday night of two-step and other styles at Nick’s.

Assuming that the time between songs and the other periods of rest were about the same at each place, they came in pretty close when it came to heart rate: The average ranged from 102 for zydeco to 109 for swing — not in the 140 to 150 beats per minutes or more I experience on a run, but a reasonable and very sustainable light pace.

According to the activity monitor, the calories used ranged from 3.3 per minute for zydeco and 3.5 per minute for country to 4.8 per minute for swing.

Add that up over a couple of hours and you’ve accomplished something — without even knowing you’ve been exercising. Now, whether it offsets the beer . . .

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