LARGO — David Helms loves to dance and it shows. One of just two men in a recent line dancing class, he glided through the intricate, fast-paced steps as if born to dance.
"I love to dance," Helms said, "and this is a way to dance without a partner."
From the CD player on the nearby stage in the Largo Community Center came a jaunty version of All of Me, sung by Willie Nelson. Instructor Barbara Fletcher, who began teaching line dancing in 1996, stepped to the rhythm along with the participants. She called the cues without missing a beat.
"My students say this is the joy of their lives," she said of line dancing. "It's a passion with them."
It appears to be a passion for Fletcher as well. At 76, she teaches advanced and beginning line dancing twice a week at the Largo center.
"I retired from corporate life," said Fletcher, "and this is my fun."
It's clearly fun for her dancers, too, and many spoke of increased flexibility and better balance. Some mentioned other benefits.
"It's helped me lose weight and lowered my cholesterol," said Helms, 64.
Phyllis Curtis, 79, has spinal stenosis. She has been line dancing for five years and now goes to classes four times a week in Largo and at another nearby community center.
"Dancing has helped me deal with this," she said of her spinal condition. "I feel much better when I dance."
Dancing seniors attest to enhanced mental acuity as well.
"It works the mind and the body," said square dance caller Allen Snell. "You have to think fast and move fast in square dancing."
Flossie Miner gives equal credit to line dancing.
"It helps make new pathways in the brain," she said, "because we are always learning new dances."
Each line dance involves listening to the calls, moving rapidly, crossing feet, turning and keeping up with both the rhythm and each other.
"I run my class like an exercise class," Fletcher said. "It is wonderful physical and mental exercise."
Fletcher said there are more than 42,000 distinct line dance routines.
"In my class we do between 150 and 200 dances," she added, noting that it takes years of attendance to rotate through and learn all of them.
Some 14 to 20 people typically show up in Fletcher's classes in late spring and summer, but in the winter the class swells with returning part-time residents.
On this particular morning she led the 14 dancers through a complex and highly aerobic routine. The group seemed to move through their steps with ease.
"Rock, recover, cross and cross," Fletcher called out against a backdrop of Old Time Rock & Roll, Bob Seger's popular tune from the '70s.
Tampa cardiologist Fred Rabow is a strong advocate of exercise in older age, noting that exercise can help a body to heal.
"I recommend that patients phase in activity gradually," he said. "The advantages are striking in those who do exercise."
For these folks, dancing is their chosen route to better health.