Hailee Lopez, 21, is being tossed and thrown in the air by her dance partner and husband, Jesse Lopez, 25.
“It’s scary,” Hailee Lopez says.
But dramatic lifts helped them win the West Coast Swing championship title and trophy in their division at the U.S. Open Swing Dance Championships in November. Last year, the Lopezes entered 13 competitions across the country and placed first in 10 of them.
They practice their high-energy moves when they’re not teaching students at their studio, Lopez Dance-KC in Mission.
She brought a ballet background to his ballroom dance expertise when they teamed up in 2014 — first as dance partners and later as husband and wife.
And on a Saturday afternoon at the Best of All Dance studio in Kansas City, North, instructor Jim Irving is showing Carl Martin how to lead his dance partner into a turn. Martin’s job as engineer influences his interpretation of the instructions for guiding his wife on the dance floor.
“I get it,” Martin, 58, says. “We’re adjusting the direction of the trajectory.”
He and Jan Martin, 56, have been taking dance lessons for three years.
Later, they plan to join other couples from the studio for a night of ballroom dancing at the Truman Memorial Building in Independence.
Whether for fun, fame or fitness, Kansas City adults of all ages are dancing at studios, on stages, at clubs, in parades, in classrooms and other settings across the metro area.
“Dancing has retained a consistent following over the years, even through the economic downturn of 2008,” said Angela Prince, national public relations director for USA Dance Inc., a national nonprofit organization that promotes social and competitive dancing in the United States. “When times are stressful, people turn to things that make them joyful.”
USA Dance has seen its local chapters grow from 12 in 1986 to 156 now. The chapters provide recreational dance and competitive dance opportunities to the public in communities across the country.
Some 18,000 dancers are registered members of USA Dance, and of those, 20 percent are competitive dancers and 80 percent are recreational dancers. Many more people participate in the activities sponsored by the chapters but don’t pay dues and aren’t included in the membership, Prince explained.
“One of the fastest-growing competitive divisions is for seniors 65 years and older,” she said. “Seniors who are taking dance gravitate toward competition, even if it’s just at the local level.”
But you don’t need to dance competitively to reap the physical and mental benefits of dance.
Just ask the Scootin’ Boots line dancers of the Northland. The youngest dancer is 63, the oldest, 83.
“You don’t stop dancing because you get old,” said Sara Fitch, 73, of Riverside. “You get old because you stop dancing.”
The Scootin’ Boots practice three times a week and have a repertoire of 145 different line dances. They are often asked to perform in nursing homes and senior living facilities.
“We encourage the residents to get up and join us,” Fitch said. “I tell them, ‘It puts a twinkle in your wrinkle.’ ”
Line dancing has been offered for about 10 years through the Northland Shepherd’s Center, an interfaith nonprofit founded to help seniors in Clay and Platte counties remain active and independent.
“I’ve lost weight and gained muscles,” said Mia Willoughby, 63, of Gladstone, who wears a Fitbit to track her daily level of activity. “We get between 7,000 and 8,000 steps in a morning.”
Amy Castro, 46, opened the Overland Park Ballroom and Social Club in the Pinnacle Village Shopping Center in March and has seen what she describes as an upswing in interest among two groups: empty-nesters who now have time for themselves to be together as a couple, and young professionals 35 years of age and younger.
The most popular time slots for dance lessons during the week are at the end of the workday — 5:45 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
Castro attributes the popularity of dance to two factors: electronics and fanatics.
“We are so into the digital world that people are feeling a desire to reconnect with people,” she said.
And the people they want to connect with are those nearby. With global uncertainty and terrorist attacks dominating the news, people are seeking the comfort that comes from contact with others in their own communities.
People want to be with those they know in a place where they feel welcome and safe, she said.
“We are seeing a revival of partnership dancing,” Castro said. “The music is current and contemporary, but people are going back to the traditional.”
By all accounts, the popularity of dance has little to do with “Dancing With the Stars.”
“Most people are intimidated by what they see on television,” Castro said. She has been teaching dance since 1987 and retired as a professional competitor five years ago.
She credits the show with creating an awareness of dance but not with boosting enrollment at the studio.
In fact, Miranda Irving, 52, said she noticed interest drop off when the television reality show first was broadcast. Irving owns the Best of All Dance studio in Kansas City, North.
The dancers “made it look so hard,” said Irving, 52. “People couldn’t see themselves in it.”
For some, it’s a special occasion that motivates them to take their first dance class.
Two weddings are the reason Jerry and Ann Sharp are taking lessons again.
The Sharps, both 64, have two sons getting married later this year and the parents know the steps they need to take now to prepare for the weddings — the foxtrot, swing and rumba.
Their previous lessons were seven years ago, when their daughter got married.
“We started in October, and we love it,” said Ann Sharp.
That’s when they began taking private dance lessons at the Best of All Dance studio. They are learning the steps, turns, sways and other basic movements so they can be at ease on the dance floor at the wedding reception.
The Sharps say they are doing more than building their confidence — they’re also getting a good workout, enjoying the music and appreciating the eye contact and closeness of dancing that brings them together as a couple.
And they don’t plan on waiting for another wedding before they return to the dance floor.
“This time, we want to make it a hobby,” Ann Sharp said.
For many couples, their weekend dance lesson is also their date night.
An introductory dance lesson package was David Brazelton’s gift to his wife for Christmas 2013.
“I was looking for something different to give her,” Brazelton, 33, said.
The Brazeltons have been dancing every Friday night for two years now.
“It’s our way of getting away from work,” said Kelsey Brazelton, 31. “You can’t think about anything else when you’re dancing.”
Miranda Irving concurs.
“Dance takes you out of the kids, away from work and into the relationship,” she said.
Irving said she has been dancing since she was 5 years old. She took a part-time job at Jim Irving’s studio in the early 1990s when she was studying political science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. They married, and “I became the owner’s wife, the choreographer, the bookkeeper.”
The Irvings moved their business to the Northland 22 years ago. Jim Irving has since retired but continues to be involved in the operations of the studio. The Irvings rent space at Ibsen Dance Theatre North to teach 23 different types of partner dancing on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
They have been teaching couples ballroom lessons for Park Hill School District Community Education since 2003.
Dance also appeals as a stress reliever.
“Dance is a feel-good sport,” said Mark Harris, owner of Walters Dance Center in Kansas City, Kan. “You forget about the mortgage, the job and the rest of the world for a few hours.”
Harris has been teaching dance for more than 20 years and has owned the dance center for 13 years. He has seen the Kansas City dance scene evolve from the popularity of swing dancing 25 years ago when a local swing club had more than 700 members, through an Argentine tango phase, to today when dancers want to diversify.
Unlike Dallas and St. Louis where swing clubs prevail, Kansas Citians “don’t want to do one dance all night,” he said.
Dance is good therapy for those who have recently become single through divorce or death of a loved one.
“You get human touch without any expectations,” he explained.
Dance partners hold each other without the intimacy of a hug.
“The dance lessons are like walking into 30 loving arms,” said Linda Laskowski, 66, of Kansas City, North.
Laskowski returned to dance after her husband of 24 years died suddenly in 2012. Dance was a career she had considered pursuing in her youth.
In fact, she was on her way back to dance with lessons she had purchased for her husband and herself, but “he died before we could use them,” she said.
Coping with grief, Laskowski signed up for a dance cruise to Mexico sponsored by Walters Dance Center: “It was seven days of dancing and fun with a group of people so caring.”
She was among 79 passengers on the cruise who participated in classes and social dancing every night on the ship. The lessons continue for Laskowski: She takes four classes every week.
To be sure, dancing works both the body and the brain.
Dancing tones the body and challenges the mind to memorize routines, to use problem-solving skills to maneuver through traffic on the dance floor and to recognize and interpret cues from their partners.
How strenuous is dance?
“Ten minutes of competitive dancing on the ballroom floor is more demanding physically than running the Hospital Hill 10k run,” said Denise Evans of Kansas City.
Evans does both. She has been competing nationally in ballroom dancing for two decades and has won national championships as recently as 2013. Unlike running up hill, dancers can’t huff and puff, look down or vary their pace at will.
In fact, Evans said, “All you have to do is to stay soft in the knees, keep your weight over your hips and your elbows forward, stay connected to your partner, keep your shoulders down and your neck straight and stay with the beat of the music.”
And one other thing: “Don’t forget to smile.”
Dancing will give you something to smile about, said Yvonne Spurlock, a physician of internal medicine at Liberty Hospital.
“My flexibility is so much better now,” Spurlock said.
She started dancing about six years ago, when her daughters began taking lessons at the Conservatory of Dance Education in Pleasant Valley.
“Instead of sitting there watching the kids, I decided to jump in and join them,” she said.
Dancing is an overall workout, she said.
“You’re not doing just one thing, like lifting weights,” Spurlock said. “Dancing improves your core strength, your cardiovascular system.”
Spurlock also takes ballroom dancing lessons from Jesse Lopez and performed with him at the annual Heart of America Ballroom DanceSport Championships in Kansas City in August.
She won money in two different divisions.
But you don’t need a partner, and you don’t need to dance competitively to reap the physical, mental and emotional benefits of dance.
“Dance is a communication-based art,” said Hailee Lopez.
When they are performing the West Coast Swing, much of the communication between Hailee and Jesse Lopez is through his grip on her hand, such as a change in the pressure of his hand on hers.
The Lopezes found they needed to expand their ways of communicating, however, when teaching the Golden Stars Dance Team, a group of 15 to 20 dancers with Down syndrome and special needs ranging in age from teenagers to adults.
“We use all sorts of communications instead of talking,” Jesse Lopez said. “We use cues that are visual instead of audio.”
The Lopezes came up with their own hand signals, for example, to show the dancers what they are expected to do. Arms held horizontal and parallel to the body means the dancers are to form lines. Arms held out to form an “X” mean it’s time for the dancers to criss-cross the floor.
By far the most frequent hand signal on the dance floor was between the dancers themselves: High-fives were given out enthusiastically for every successful completion of a new dance step or technique.
“Hailee and Jesse do a great job of articulating and tuning into how those with multiple disabilities learn,” said Kristie Pietig of Shawnee. Her 18-year-old daughter, Sara, is a member of the dance team.
Repetition and consistency are important.
When preparing the dancers to move in a ballroom dance style, Jesse Lopez reminds them that the line of dancers moves counterclockwise around the room because guys always lead with their left foot.
And dancer Lucy Wagner finished his sentence laughing: “And girls are always right.”
Lucy’s mother, Annette Wagner of Roeland Park, takes her daughter to the dance studio twice a week, for the group lesson and a private lesson with Jesse Lopez.
“People with Down syndrome love to dance,” Wagner said. “They are a joy to watch.”