Athlete Finds New Home on the Ballroom Dance Floor

Liz Merritt
December 16, 2016
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One of the most athletic forms of dance is competitive ballroom dancing. So it’s no wonder Patti Dennis was drawn to the beauty of this sport after decades training as an endurance athlete.

Although the elegant movements of Dennis and her instructor John Holzworth appear effortless to this untrained observer, a deeper dive reveals thousands of hours of training to develop strong posture, body rotation, timing, leg power and the foot strength required to perform at a competitive level.

Four years ago, ballroom dancing was just what Dennis – now 60 and semi-retired – was looking for. She viewed it as a distraction from the rigorous training she had pursued for decades as a runner and triathlete and acted on a New Year’s resolution to try something new.

Dare to Do Something New

ballroom dance

Patti Dennis and her instructor and dance partner John Holzworth in action.

When she saw the dance school advertising “no partner necessary,” she was sold. “I remember driving up there and walking in the door for my first lesson. It scared the heck out of me! But it also challenged me to go out there and do something I knew nothing about.”

Ask where her primary athletic passion lies, and her blue eyes sparkle like rhinestones on a ball gown.

The way Dennis sees it, competitive ballroom dancing provides a disciplined athletic outlet with training goals, while keeping her on her toes mentally as she memorizes and perfects the choreography of every routine.

She’s still a runner and completed the Chicago Marathon this year. But the ballroom has taken center stage, calling for about 20 training hours weekly as she reaches for new goals and bigger, national competitions. “This is my passion, and I’m fairly obsessed with it. I think I can dance for the rest of my life.”

Mass Appeal

ballroom dance

Ballroom dance is more accessible and appealing to people of all ages.

Holzworth, who is Dennis’ primary instructor and her competition dance partner, would agree. He has seen the needle move significantly since the debut of the reality TV show Dancing With the Stars to make ballroom dance more accessible and appealing to newcomers of all ages.

Holzworth notes a growing interest among the 50+ generation has fueled the resurgence in ballroom significantly in the last several years. “The beautiful thing about ballroom is anyone can do it. There are no physical restrictions, no age limits, no mental limitations. It’s accessible to everyone.”

Holzworth is a lifelong dancer and co-owner with Shawn Nerdahl of Arizona Ballroom Champions  dance studio in Tempe, Arizona. Holzworth has been a professional ballroom instructor for seven years and is an accomplished competitor in his own right. The studio is also home to American Rhythm and World Rhythm dance champions Decho Kraev and Bree Watson.

Rigorous Training

When asked if ballroom dance can be considered an avenue to fitness, the answer is a resounding YES. “If you dance a salsa, an East Coast swing, or a samba, it’s the equivalent of running 1 ½ miles for every minute and 30 seconds of dancing. It’s literally the entire body working in overdrive,” Holzworth says.

What sets dance apart is the mental conditioning required to execute precision choreography. “Every single foot has a very strategic placement,” Holzworth explains. “You are perfectly placing yourself on every step. It’s that connection, the timing and the expression that makes you work from your fingertips to the ends of your toes.”

Dance training will build back, core, foot and leg strength, Holzworth says. He also expects competition dancers to spend time strength training in the gym, as well as in ballet classes, for added core and foot power, as well as poise, posture and elegance.

Baby  Steps

So what’s the proverbial first step if you’re over 50 and want to give ballroom dancing whirl? Holzworth says, “Just book your first lesson! That’s the most intimidating part. Once you start dancing, you’ll fall in love with it right away.”

If competitive dancing sounds intriguing, Holzworth assures there are divisions to accommodate every level – from novice to advanced.

Dennis explains that her first national-level competition was in San Diego, and in 2017, she is setting a goal to compete at the Ohio Star Ball, the largest Pro/Am competition in the world.

Words of Wisdom

So what’ is Dennis’ secret to healthy aging? She insists it’s very simple: eat well, exercise, focus on positive affirmations and find a passion.

“That’s one of the good things about aging. It’s not complicated,” Dennis says. “It’s carpe diem. Focus on the present. Because if the next 30 years go by as fast as the first 30, it’s going to be over before I know it.”

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