The ballroom dance that scandalized polite English society in the 19th century for its salacious pairing of men and women is causing a ruckus again. The waltz, it turns out, can have actual health benefits.
In a study of 110 heart failure patients presented last week at a meeting of the American Heart Assn. in Chicago, researchers reported that dancing the waltz three times a week for eight weeks was just as effective in improving cardiopulmonary function as exercising on a treadmill or bicycle for the same period.
That's because the waltz, which looks so smooth and elegant when done well, is deceptively rigorous. Because of that, its aerobic benefits extend to non-heart patients as well, says Dr. William Averill, a Torrance cardiologist and past president of the association's Los Angeles division.
Of course, die-hard aficionados knew this already -- and regard the recent study results as vindication. They, after all, have persevered with the paean to more civilized times while others fell in with sexier dances, such as the mambo and cha-cha.
"The waltz is more of a workout than aerobics or running," says Stuart Cole, co-owner of Vivo Dancesport Center in Hacienda Heights. On a Tuesday night last week, he was teaching both the slow (American) and faster (Viennese) style waltz to several dozen eager students.
The waltz is done in three-four time, or three beats to the bar. Imagine counting 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, very rapidly, with a weight change on every step, says Jeff Allen, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Ballroom Dancing."
In the American-style waltz, there are 30 to 36 bars per minute, so you're doing 90 weight changes per minute or more, he says. This style of waltz is great for toning and strengthening muscles, says Tami Stevens, co-owner of the Pasadena Ballroom Dance Assn. "You're elongating and stretching your body as you move," she says. "We do a lot of turns and variations on it, so at the end of the dance, your heart is beating harder because you've been turning and twirling."
The Viennese-style waltz is performed at 56 to 61 bars per minute, roughly twice the speed of the American waltz -- even faster than a Lindy Hop or jitterbug, Allen says.
"You have to work yourself up to a Viennese waltz very much like an aerobics workout, because it's nonstop," says Loren Kalin, owner of the Long Beach Dance Centre. "The music is 1-2-3, and your feet have to move to that rhythm."
"If you're not in peak condition, you're going to be almost dead by the time you end the song," Allen adds.
The dance requires excellent body control as the couple moves in and out of various positions, which isn't easy. "The rib cage has to be lifted and supported from the abdominal muscles," Allen says, while the hamstrings and gluts stretch vertically to keep an erect carriage.
The muscles work even harder as the dancer moves across the floor. As the dancer puts one foot down and moves another, he's carrying the entirety of his torso weight plus his head, on every single dance step, he says. "If you can do the Viennese waltz, you don't really have to worry about your health because you have to be in shape," Allen says.
Not even "Dancing With the Stars" contestants will tackle that style of waltz -- and that includes all-time NFL rushing leader Emmitt Smith, this season's "Dancing With the Stars" winner (nicknamed "Twinkle Toes" by the judges). Although the locomotive of a running back proved deceptively smooth and light on his feet, particularly in the waltz, he and the other contestants mostly stayed away from the classic Viennese style.
"It's just too fast," Allen says.
Muscle and cardio benefits aside, the waltz has perks that a run on the elliptical doesn't. Two words: less sweat. Waltzers get to exercise in an elegant setting, with pleasant music, and they don't have to hold their noses while toweling someone else's sweat from a chrome machine.
"No one smells bad, " says Cecilia Yu, an avid waltzer who took up ballroom dance 14 years ago.
At Vivo Dancesport Center, Theresa and Thomas Woo, who have been dancing together for 11 years, took the news of the study in stride. "The waltz is very rigorous exercise," says Thomas, looking out at the dancers. "While getting a workout, you develop your muscles in order to power yourself across the floor."
Where people go wrong is in assuming that it's easy because it looks effortless.
"It's very easy to dance the waltz," says Theresa. "But it's very hard to do it right."
Allen has even stronger words about the waltz. "It's not good for you," he says. "It's fabulous."
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Step into the world of waltz
The most civilized of dances -- the one that doctors are now touting -- wasn't always so socially acceptable.