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Vol. LVIII, No. 7
April 7, 2006

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Country Line Dancing
500 Classes Later, NIH'ers Still Strutting Their Stuff

It's a hit in Texas, bigger yet in Australia and even former HHS Secretary Donna Shalala was spotted doing it a number of years back at a Combined Federal Campaign kickoff program at NIH. The activity? Line dancing.

NHLBI Program Analyst Dennis Askwith offers instruction
at his popular Country Western Line Dancing class. Instructions to students can typically include such admonitions
as “Now it’s heel, heel, cha-cha, cha,” and “Palms up, hips back and kick-kick! Yee-haw!”

Every Tuesday at noon, as many as 20 employees, Clinical Center patients and visitors kick up their heels as they learn the latest line dances under the auspices of the Country Western Line Dance club. The club, sponsored by the Recreation and Welfare Association, celebrated its 500th weekly class on Feb. 28.

The current instructor, Dennis Askwith, a senior program analyst with NHLBI, is one of several NIH'ers who have been teaching the sessions since their inception in 1995. "Actually at the very start, for several sessions we paid professional line dancers to come in and teach the steps," recalls Askwith, who began dancing during a stint in Puerto Rico years back, where dancing was and still is considered very important. As you might expect of an analyst, he carefully constructs an Excel spreadsheet as he prepares to teach each new dance. While he now has about 75 dances under his heel, some well-established web sites contain the steps for upwards of 15,000 line dances from all over the world.

In a line dance, a group of five to 100 or more people form a line or several lines, while performing the same steps simultaneously. More popular the further toward the heartland you travel from the East Coast, line dancing typically has a cowboy or western theme, though at times other musical genres are introduced such as Celtic, swing, folk, rock and even those with a Latin flavor (e.g., cha-cha, salsa).

Askwith admits this form of dancing tends to be somewhat faddish — with upswings and downswings in popularity. A noticeable upsurge coincided with the release of Billy Ray Cyrus's 1992 hit "Achy Breaky Heart." In another sign of the activity's appeal, a periodical solely devoted to line dancing hit the magazine racks in 1996.

A typical 8-beat dance movement might be called by the instructor as "up-cha-cha, kick-ball change, toe, heel, wrap, turn" — to the count 1 & 2, 3 & 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Most line dances have four parts of 8 beats each. It takes about 20 minutes of instruction to commit a dance to "muscle memory," according to Askwith.

So why the enduring interest? Askwith notes that "one factor is that, in minutes, you can master a complete line dance, while it can take months or longer to become competent in a traditional couples dance like the swing or the mambo." He adds, "With couples dancing, you first need to find a partner, then you have to gel with your partner, and finally, you have to retain that partner. With line dancing, you can 'be all that you can be' without depending on anyone else or, essentially, without being in someone else's arms."


Line dancing may elicit some health benefits also — be they physical, mental or social. The motivation for one class regular, Lillian McCloud, a clerk in the Office of Research Facilities, is preventive care/health maintenance. Per her doctor's orders, she has faithfully attended classes for more than 9 years and has successfully kept her once troublesome arthritis in check.

Further, there may be a spiritual side to the activity. Askwith says many of the NIH participants sit in the laboratory all day using the left side of their brains, "but on Tuesdays they can come to our class and after a few minutes of instruction, almost mystically sync their body's movements with some very cool music. The activity takes them to a very different place."

Does it reduce anxiety and quell stress? It certainly may, but until one masters the steps involved in line dancing, it can also be stress-producing, some dancers maintain. Then again, "when you're out there on the floor and you're basically out of your own world, that's when you really can see and feel the stress-reduction," explained Askwith. "It's a blissful feeling."

NIH'ers who are curious about line dancing are welcome to join the club. Sessions are held every Tuesday in the Clinical Center's 14th floor gymnasium. There is no charge to participate, but you must be a member of the R&W.

For more information, contact Askwith at (301) 496-5031 or email him at

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