Line 'em up! Country-western dance classes keep the mind and body in shape

Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Dancers concentrate on their steps during a line dancing class led by Irene Reynolds at the Eagles Club in Cape Girardeau, Mo., on Wednesday, June 16, 2010. The class attracts between 40-60 participants each week. (Kristin Eberts)

Rick and Joanne Roberts had been square dancing together for more than 20 years before they tried line dancing in 1993. Though Rick enjoys dancing now, he admits he was very self-conscious when he first started. His wife -- and his own "hard-headedness" -- kept him going despite his initial reservations.

"I went with her and the rest is history. I've been dancing ever since," says Roberts. "I don't know what possessed me to continue with it, but I became comfortable on the floor and then everything fell into place. I think getting into the learning mode is the hardest thing for beginners to do. It's like the learning center shuts down after you get out of school, and you have to open it up again."

The Sikeston couple now goes line dancing about three times a week, including the couples class on Monday nights at the Cape Girardeau Eagles Club.

"At first I just liked to prove I can," says Roberts. "As I've aged, I do it for the exercise and companionship and camaraderie. It's good to get out and socialize."

John Brown of Fruitland began line dancing a couple years after his divorce in 1993, and still dances at the American Legion and Eagles clubs in Cape Girardeau and the VFW in Sikeston. Brown -- who owns more than 30 cowboy hats and is known for wearing a different hat each night -- says he enjoys both singles and couples line dancing, but prefers dancing as a couple.

"If you're out of step you can get back in step easier. If you make a mistake, you just laugh and go on," he says.

Irene Reynolds of Jonesboro, Ill., teaches line dance at the Eagles Club on Monday and Wednesday nights, as well as a line dance class at Fitness Plus in Cape Girardeau. She's even traveled as far as Wisconsin and Texas to teach -- and take -- line dance classes. Reynolds thinks many seniors are drawn to line dance because it's a social activity that doesn't require a partner. In fact, Reynolds began dancing in 1991 because she was single and looking for a new activity. At the time, she could dance at a different place each night, and each place was packed.

"You go alone, but you're not alone," says Reynolds, who now spends about 13 hours teaching and dancing every week. "I think it's important for a lot of people to be part of a group but not a clique."

Ann Kielhafner of Chaffee grew up dancing the jitterbug, two-step and waltz, and two months ago, she added line dance to her repertoire. Kielhafner is among a handful of people who take line dance classes with Laura Coder on Monday afternoons at the Jackson Senior Center.

"It's all I ever knew growing up. My mom and sister and I would dance at home," says Kielhafner. She even met John, her husband of 43 years, at a community dance in Perryville. Because he was from Chaffee, Kielhafner says she never would have met him if it weren't for the popularity of dance in those days.

"Young people need to learn how to dance," she says. When her husband passed away last fall, she knew she could stay at home and fret or get out and keep busy -- so she busied herself with dance, just as she's always loved to do.

"I do fine if I can get my brain to work," she says. Remembering the steps and sequences is good exercise for her brain, something that most older people have to work on, she adds.

"There are plenty of senior moments going on here, me included," says Coder, who's been dancing since the early 1990s. Like Reynolds, Coder fell into line dancing while she was single, and it stuck with her. She recommends the activity for everyone, young and old, coordinated or not.

"They like the socialization and they enjoy the dances," says Coder. "It helps with memory because you have to remember different patterns and steps."

Beverly Banks of Jackson has been dancing all of her life, too, starting with ballroom dancing and picking up line dance about eight years ago.

"I learned to dance on my daddy's feet on the Admiral in St. Louis," she recalls. Banks was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984, and with fewer medical options available then than today, her doctors were not optimistic about her recovery. Banks has been in remission now for 18 years, and though she still has occasional preventive chemotherapy and struggles with her balance and numbness in her feet, she dances a few times a week, using a chair for balance. Through dance, Banks has found not just friendship and physical fitness, but a way to lift her spirits during tough times.

"I guess God wanted to keep me around," says Banks, who turned 70 in November. "I really feel the need to let people know that it's not the end of the world. There is so much more to life. You can put up with a lot of stuff if you just find other stuff to be happy about in life."

Irene Reynolds, second from left, leads Sue Gerecke, left, Mary LeGrand, and Dorothy Seyer, right, during a line dancing class at the Eagles Club in Cape Girardeau, Mo., on Wednesday, June 16, 2010. The class attracts between 40-60 participants each week. (Kristin Eberts)

Banks even brings her 15-year-old granddaughter to line dance classes because she believes dance -- and having friends of all ages -- is important for all age groups. Still, in most venues, even the youngest line dancers are not exactly young. Reynolds and Roberts, like many of their peers, hope to attract younger generations to keep the line dance tradition alive.

"It's a dying art," says Reynolds, who often gives free lessons in schools and Girl Scout troops -- "Anytime I can get the kids involved," she says. "I think it's good for their self-esteem. They might not be good at anything else, but they can be good at line dancing."

Adds Roberts, "If you want to meet someone nice, you're not going to meet them in a bar. I don't see very many men, especially young men, who come to dance. So I guess if you're a young woman, that's not necessarily a good thing. But it's a good environment."

Mike Holzum of Jackson, who teaches line dance with Reynolds, feels the same way.

"I always tell single guys to learn how to dance, because it's a great way to meet nice women," he says. He knows of places in Illinois, like Wild Country in Collinsville, where hundreds of people in their 20s go to line dance each night. So why hasn't it caught on this side of the Mississippi?

"They learned it in school so it's more acceptable," says Holzum -- but who wouldn't love it once they give it a try? Everyone loves moving to music, says Reynolds.

"You can do the exercise at any point you are in your physical ability," adds Banks. "You can slow down and skip steps, or if you're more active, you can emphasize the movements and jump around more. No one says, 'Haha, look at them, they can't do it right.' We laugh at ourselves more than anything."

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