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Jenessa Jensen, left, Jordan Centeno and Vicki Beasley practice

For kids and teens in the South Valley, dance is an art, a sport
and a way to make friends
As the music starts, the little girls line up one after another, dressed in pink, blue, purple and black leotards and tights. Gingerly, they shift their weight onto their right legs, keeping their arms in loose circles in front of their bodies as if holding imaginary beach balls.

They slide their left feet up their right legs to meet their knees, forming triangles. Some hold the shape well. Others pivot their knees to the front, and some struggle just to remain upright. All of the girls furrow their brows in concentration as they move across the floor, watching their reflections in floor-to-ceiling mirrors.

The 7- and 8-year-olds are students in one of many ballet classes on a recent evening at Dance Unlimited in Morgan Hill. Unbeknownst to the young prima ballerinas, they are doing more than just learning some basic dance moves. They’re improving their cardiovascular health, self-esteem and muscles, and they’re also helping to ensure their future health.

Although an activity as enjoyable as dancing might not seem like exercise, it is, and it’s a good way to get that heart beating and those muscles working, said Dr. Martin Bress, a doctor of internal medicine and cardiology at Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital in Hollister. Bress recommends nontraditional exercise activities like dance for people who don’t want to be stuck in a gym to get their exercise.

“The key thing in exercise is to have movement of the major muscle groups,” Bress said. “So things like dancing, where you’re moving your legs, are most effective.”

The movements of dance incorporate resistance training, using the weight of the body to condition and tone muscle groups – similar to activities such as pilates and swimming, said Juliet La Pointe-Smith, director of Morgan Hill Dance Studio and South Valley Ballet.

“You don’t build bulk muscle (with dance). You build long, lean muscle, which burns calories faster. Dancers make it look easy, but they’re working just as hard as any football player,” she said.

The tiny ballerinas at Dance Unlimited run to line up again, this time to practice leaps. They take turns scurrying toward a pair of shoes lying in the middle of the floor, and at the last second, the ballerinas jump into the air and scissor their legs in either direction. They land on the other side of the shoes and dash to back of the line to await their next turn.

The basic moves the students are learning condition a range of muscle groups, said Traci Dalke, owner of Studio Three in Gilroy.

“The health benefits (of dance) are tremendous,” she said. “You get cardiovascular, you get muscle tone. You use your legs, abs, arm, back – you work everything. Honestly, I don’t think there’s any muscle group that gets left behind.”

A stronger body isn’t the only advantage to learning how to dance. Georgette Sunzeri enrolled her 7-year-old daughter, Allie, into dance classes to improve her social skills.

“I put Allie in to get her out of her shyness and give her more independence and confidence,” Sunzeri said. “I think you can really see a difference. It’s a big difference.”

Angelica Magnisi, an 11-year-old student who takes several classes at Dance Unlimited, agrees that being part of a dance class can help bring timid people out of their shells.

“I used to be really shy before I started dancing, and now I think I’m more open and outgoing and stuff,” she said. “It’s really fun, and I really love it.”

Older students also see dance as a social opportunity. In another room at Dance Unlimited, a group of teenaged girls walk and spin across the hardwood floors while techno dance music blares from a set of speakers.

They watch themselves intently in the mirrors as their instructor yells over the music, telling them to keep their heads up and to smile. Some confidently raise their arms and sway their hips, others battle the dizziness that comes if they don’t keep a focal point as they spin.

“There are a lot of other benefits besides (physical) health,” said Lauri Gray, owner of Lauri Gray’s Dance Studio in Gilroy. “It’s their self-esteem, the friendships they make, their coordination.”

In yet another room at Dance Unlimited, an unrecognizable show tune is nearly drowned out by the sound of tap-tap-tappity-tapping coming from a small group of tap dancers. The only way to tell just how fast their feet move is by listening to the increasing pace of the clicks, clacks and stomps.

Then someone makes a mistake. The culprit is given away by the shoes on her feet. She giggles and covers her mouth as her teacher, with an amused look, shakes her head. The music stops and is rewound before starting again. The dancer gets it right this time and receives an approving nod and smile for her effort.

Back in the ballet room, the 7- and-8-year-old dancers have finished their class, and a slightly older group of girls take to the floor. They line up, and Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” begins to play. The piece begins slowly, and the first two girls start to move in the familiar steps they’ve clearly executed before. The students at the back of the line quiver and fidget in anticipation of their turn.

“(Dance is) fun, and it makes me feel really peaceful and strong,” said Kati Heger, 10, a jazz, modern and ballet student. She hurries back to the dance floor so she can again become a flower, lifting her arms, raising one leg and moving in sync with the others.

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