The mission: From B to Z – or rather, ballet to Zumba – dance you to a healthier lifestyle.
The commitment: “In January, I sent an email about New Year’s resolutions to everyone on our mailing list. I offered to personally keep tabs on anyone who wanted extra encouragement.”
Top 3 ways she’ll change your life:
- Get in shape while simultaneously getting your groove on.
- Boost your brainpower: Research proves that dance is the best form of exercise for preventing Alzheimer’s.
- For once and for all, quit paying membership dues to that gym you never go to.
In sum: Every year, most of us resolve to get in shape, lose weight, or at the very least, be able to look our doctor in the eye when she asks how often we exercise. If you find a dance class that you enjoy, you’re just a pas de bourrée away.
Behind the scenes
It is 6:52 p.m. and I am discovering that fondu is not just a bowl of melted cheese. As the room fills with classical music, I attempt the ballet step: a one-legged plie, which I manage thanks to my white-knuckle grip on the bar.
In the mirror ahead, I watch the room dip as one, and I feel a trill of excitement. I am sweating and uncoordinated and my foot is cramping, but I can’t help grinning. There is live accompaniment from a grand piano, we are standing in neat rows at ballet bars, and I am learning the exquisite suffering behind one of dance’s most beautiful forms.
When I was five I went through a phase of telling everyone I met that, when I grew up, I wanted to be a prima ballerina.
Turns out, I still do.
Does your gym have a piano accompanist?
Vicki Parsons is the program director for the Butler Community School (BCS) in Austin, and the woman in charge of the drop-in class I attended. (She is also the director of operations for BCS and Ballet Austin.)
An avid runner with a former career in recreational therapy, Parsons might seem an unlikely candidate for running a dance center. She began as a parent volunteer at Ballet Austin in 1997, while her daughter was taking classes. In the years since, her background in exercise and successful aging has proved central to the BCS mission. As program director today, her goal is to help the community embrace a healthier lifestyle; specifically, by inspiring and empowering others through dance.
The important thing, she says, is for everyone to find a form of exercise that he or she actually – brace yourself – enjoys. For many people, dance is this silver bullet.
“If you find something that you love to do, you’ll keep doing it,” Parsons says. It sounds so simple. And yet, for many of us, this does not jibe with our idea of exercise – which might explain the worldwide epidemic of lapsed gym memberships.
How many times has someone used the word love in association with an elliptical machine?
Be like Beyoncé
BCS was founded in 2007 as a community school of dance. With more than 60 drop-in dance and Pilates classes every week, it’s truly an Austin hub. Sit in the lobby for a few minutes at any time of day, and you’ll see people of all ages bustling by, toting everything from tap shoes to Glee costumes. (A recent Gleek-shop taught choreography from the hit show.) Two of the school’s most active students are an elderly married couple, ages 78 and 86, who attend Pilates together.
They’re all drawn to BCS because, with its variety of classes, there is something for just about everybody. While I was swept up by the romance of an adult beginner ballet class, I could just as easily have dropped into tap, jazz, hula, Broadway, hip hop, modern, or Zumba. And Parsons makes sure that the class schedule is constantly evolving. For example, a semiregular Videodance class teaches the choreography of contemporary MTV videos. Recently, in response to popular demand, the class tackled Lady Gaga’s “Telephone.”
“We ask ourselves, what do people love to do?” Parsons says. “That’s when they’re going to come.”
That’s the whole point: Keep them inspired, keep them dancing, keep them healthy.
Once more, from the top
As with most things in life, the most important step to succeeding at a workout routine is showing up. And last year alone, more than 3,500 Austinites showed up to dance at BCS.
“I have received thank-you emails from women who lost 50 pounds from their Zumba classes,” Parsons says. Wellness is more than just losing weight or breaking a sweat, though. It also has to do with staying socially and mentally active.
And it’s about empowerment.
Parsons remembers a woman who brought her daughter to dance classes for years until one day deciding to take an adult class herself.
“She went out to the car afterwards and cried. She had finally realized that she could have dance in her own life, too,” Parsons says. “Now she’s one of our most active students.”
Who needs crosswords?
Some 25 years ago, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine led a study of seniors age 75 and older. They tested the success of various physical and cognitive activities in warding off dementia, from crosswords to cardio. The most effective activity – physical or cognitive – was frequent dancing.
As I step all over myself trying keep up with our ballet instructor, I can understand why. As Parsons points out, dancing is about more than just movement. You have to remember steps. You have to put them to music. You have to be aware of your own space and the person’s next to you. This is every bit as much a mental exercise as a physical one.
Not to mention its miraculous effects on posture. When I emerge from class, flushed and sore, I make a point to stand tall and glide through the lobby like a pro.
I may never be a prima ballerina. But I’ll be back for more ballet.
Visit balletaustin.org/community for schedules and information about classes at the Butler Community School, Ballet Austin’s community dance center. Get started with one of the school’s introductory offers. Stay connected on the BCS Facebook page.