Summer in the balmy city — the bandstand goes up, the music starts up and couples flock to the dance floor at Chicago’s annual SummerDance program in Grant Park, at Michigan near Harrison.

Sponsored by the City of Chicago, this free series of lessons and dancing to live music is marking its 21st year as an emblem of the city’s wealth of dance sites and clubs. While fun is the biggest draw at these venues, many who participate also see dancing as a way to improve balance and flexibility and lose weight. And now studies show that dancing can help brains stay sharp as people age.

Hundreds dance salsa as Orquesta El Macabeo performs during Chicago SummerDance, part of Taste of Chicago in Grant Park’s Spirit of Music Garden on Saturday night, July 8, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

That’s no surprise to five Chicagoans — two married couples and a single professionally trained dancer — who’ve turned to dancing to help them focus mentally, ward off stress and, for the professional, feel transported to a higher level of consciousness.

Retired journalists Linda Lenz and Marshall Froker started taking dancing lessons 27 years ago when they were invited to a swing dance party and didn’t want to sit on the sidelines. The lessons took, and they were hooked.

Eight years ago, they started taking regular, private instruction in order to strengthen their technical skills and learn more dances. They now perform in exhibitions and do solo routines.

Ballroom aficionados Linda Lenz and Marshall Froker. | SUPPLIED PHOTO

“For the man who is the leader, I see it as a mental challenge,” Froker said. “You’re responsible for figuring out the next thing you’re going to do and leading [it]—signaling your partner so she knows what’s next.

“Often, on a crowded dance floor, you have to quickly figure out something else if someone steps suddenly in front of you,” he said. “You have to be nimble mentally.”

Lenz said the woman’s role requires attention to such minutiae as keeping your shoulders in the right place and taking care, when turning your head, not to tilt it.

“We are so fortunate that we are driven in the same way to keep getting better, and that we enjoy it,” she said. The couple takes weekly private and occasional group classes at the Arthur Murray downtown studio at 116 W. Illinois, and practices two to three times a week. They also review videotapes of their lessons.

Jacqueline Toepfer and Kurt Bullard dance at Arthur Murray studio in River North as their teacher, Basia Kaczmarek (left) gives them some guidance on July 18, 2017. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Jacqueline Toepfer and Kurt Bullard also find dancing a way to bond as husband and wife. They knew each other while working at the same software company, but it wasn’t until Bullard relocated to Chicago in 2012 in a career move that they started dating.

Toepfer and Bullard, then both divorced, met four years ago while taking dance lessons at the Arthur Murray downtown studio, and married in January.

Toepfer grew up in small-town Wisconsin, dancing every weekend from August until October in the Belgian community’s Kermis harvest celebration. As an adult, she became intrigued with learning the proper steps and styles.

“There’s something about dance that requires you to really rely on and trust your partner and feel close to your partner to make a connection,” said Toepfer, whose favorite dance is the waltz.

Toepfer, 55, a product manager at a software company, said she found dance lessons a calming diversion from workplace stress and a fun way to tap into her femininity — a new experience since she grew up as a tomboy and evolved into an independent businesswoman in the technology industry. “I had to learn how to follow [the man’s lead],” she said.

For Bullard, 59, a manager for a software firm, the mindfulness and concentration required in learning complex steps, as well as the sultry and playful aspects of certain dances, served as his own personal “renaissance” that there was life after his divorce.

“I was terribly shy and terrified of dancing until I walked into the studio,” he said. Now, he finds the Rumba “sultry” and a way for he and Toepfer to develop their relationship.

“It’s about the interaction between two people,” he said. “We talk about it after [the lesson].”

For Sandra Mandel, founder of Wear2Where.com, a fashion and travel resource website, training as a salsa dancer in San Francisco proved the perfect way to anchor herself after a divorce. Though dance proved to be a great stress reliever, Mandel discovered that memorizing steps and learning choreography were tough.

“Your brain is just fired up the whole time,” she said. “You have to implement the moves into muscle memory.

Sandy Mandel dances with instructor Drew Sutherland at Arthur Murray studio in River North on July 18, 2017. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

“There are times I have to repeat a segment 20 times in a row just to get one move that’s hard, different or new to me. It challenges your brain,” said Mandel, who has danced in many countries without knowing the language of the songs she’s danced to. “There’s a dance thread and commonality around the world,” she said.

Mandel, who moved to Chicago a year ago, has also found another factor vital to brain health in aging — socialization.

“Dancing brings in an unexpected extended family,” she said. “People who dance share a similar attitude about health and wellness; they embrace the entire mental and physical challenge and excitement of it.”

Such insights punctuate new research revealing that dance helps people ward off dementia, in addition to its proven benefits of improving balance, posture, body control and joint alignment and causing fewer ligament injuries than suffered in playing sports, said Marijeanne Liederbach, director of the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.

Liederbach pointed to a study of 35 people, ages 60 to 94, who took dance lessons once a week for six months who showed better reaction times and working memory after their experience, as reported in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

Research of people in their 60s to their 70s who practiced English country and Contra dancing three times a week for six months showed they suffered less deterioration in one brain region than those who were assigned to walk, stretch and take balance training.

The participants were given MRIs before and after the six months of activities. Though the finding needs to be reproduced for confirmation, it’s promising that the challenge to memorize steps and be physically active may increase brain integrity as people age, said researcher Aga Burzynska, an assistant professor at the Human Development and Family Studies department at Colorado State University. Burzynska did the research while completing her post-doctoral training at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“The research showed you have to challenge your brain to some degree to elicit positive changes,” she said. “It’s like training muscles. We won’t build more muscle if we only exercise within the limit of comfortable weight or repetition.”

“It’s also about learning something new and building so called cognitive and brain reserve,” Burzynska said. “These reserves can protect us from cognitive decline in older age, and our study shows this reserve is not only to be built during childhood, youth or mid-adulthood, but also in older age.”

Dance injury specialist Liederbach cautions to beware trying to “go from zero to 60” too quickly or becoming a weekend dance warrior.

“Make sure you have a teacher who is aware of you as an individual in the classroom,” she said. “It’s all about balancing enthusiasm with the knowledge of how to taper up. Don’t overload too quickly.”

Sandra Guy is a local freelance writer.

Josh Hills (center) and Peter Franco dance salsa as Orquesta El Macabeo performs during Chicago SummerDance, part of Taste of Chicago in Grant Park’s Spirit of Music Garden on Saturday night, July 8, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

STEP LIVELY
Whether it’s free dance lessons breathing fresh air on the Grant Park lawn, free salsa lessons on Friday and Saturday nights at Dylan’s Tavern & Grill in the West Loop, or paying club membership dues to take salsa, Zumba or hip-hop classes, Chicago offers a would-be dancer’s paradise.

Among the popular spots are:
— Dylans Tavern & Grill, 118 S. Clinton, offers lessons starting at about 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, enabling patrons to learn how to spot turn before taking the floor to a live DJ’s salsa beat.
— The Drake Hotel hosts Salsa night every first and third Wednesday nights. The salsa class, which starts at 6:30 p.m., has a $20 entrance fee that includes two drink tickets.
— East Bank Club is professional dancer Sandra Mandel’s choice to tackle the challenge of Dance Latin Groove classes. Dues-paying club members may also choose from among classes such as Zumba, taught by former Luvabull and professional dancer Aida Johnson-Rapp, or hip-hop taught by pro dancer Labake Oyebanjo.
— Arthur Murray Dance Center Chicago, with locations in the city and suburbs, is still the gold standard, especially for those who yearn to pirouette, spin turn and two-step with the stars.
— SummerDance runs through Sept. 10 in Grant Park, and Sept. 14 at various park districts. Visit cityofchicago.org

A detailed list can be found at seechicagodance.com/class.