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Swing into shape

You've watched "Dancing With the Stars" and secretly dreamed of being out on the floor with a partner you may or may not already have met. OK, maybe not.

But maybe you've dreamed of dancing with your partner in front of an appreciative crowd here in the Rogue Valley. Perhaps at the Medford Armory during the annual Jazz Jubilee.

You may be closer than you think.

Though ballroom and folk dancing have followings here in Southern Oregon, the most popular partner-dance form locally is West Coast swing.

This "lead-follow" partner-dance style is descended from the jitterbug and is not as formal as ballroom dancing, though West Coast swing does have a set format. The leader pulls the partner back and forth through an imaginary 9-foot-long slot, using two steps as the follower approaches. The partner either passes by or steps back with a pair of triple steps.

When you watch a couple dance, you'll be mesmerized with the rhythm: one, two, three-four-five, six-seven-eight. They appear to be attached by a spring. Expand and contract. Expand and contract.

Many moves — or passes — have distinct names, such as "freedom pass" or "sugar bush." The enjoyable part about this form of swing dancing is that you're allowed to make up your own moves, as long as they fit into this rhythmic, slot format.

Creativity is what many swing dancers find appealing.

"West Coast swing is still evolving. It's more playful and spontaneous than the more rigid forms of ballroom dancing, such as waltz and foxtrot," says Dave Kahn, a local swing teacher and publisher of the Southern Oregon Swing newsletter.

"The music is a big factor. Unlike a waltz, with swing you can dance to R 'n' B, blues, contemporary, hip-hop, country. You won't get bored," Kahn adds.

The heart of local West Coast swing is the Evergreen Ballroom, located at 6088 Crater Lake Ave., on the border of Medford and Central Point.

On any given Thursday night at 7 p.m., about 50 people pay the $6 fee for a lesson. The Evergreen Ballroom dance floor is more than 100 feet long and has bright lighting, which can feel welcoming on a cold and rainy winter night. During the lesson, the space is partitioned to allow rooms for beginners and advanced dancers. An hour later, the partitions are removed, and the students, along with newly arrived regulars, dance for as long as they wish.

Kahn can be found at the ballroom each Thursday evening with fellow teacher and dance partner, Rebecca Blust.

"This ballroom is unique. Evergreen is the biggest on the West Coast, and it has the best floor. It's spring-loaded, built on the design of the old Oasis ballroom in Eagle Point they used 100 years ago," Blust explains.

If you jump up and down on the floor, you can feel the springs below the polished maple floorboards. According to Blust, this design functions like an array of shock absorbers that allow dancers to stay out all night without getting sore knees.

According to Kahn, this is no exaggeration.

"We have more than 100 people in The Evergreen Ballroom every day. On some nights (during special events), people dance until 3 a.m. When people get on a treadmill (to jog), they're there for only 30 minutes. When people dance, they sometimes dance for three or four hours. That's a long time," Kahn says.

Dancing the night away can compete with just about any form of exercise.

Active swing dancing burns about 306 calories per hour, 50 percent more than a waltz or foxtrot, according to www.caloriecount.about.com. It ranks higher than moderate walking or leisurely bicycling. And even though swimming and cross-country skiing will burn 544 calories per hour, you may find you can go for hours longer on the dance floor than you can in the pool or on the trail.

In addition to the cardiovascular benefits, dancing develops a strong core and a healthy posture. And after a few lessons, when you've got the hang of it, your self-confidence will soar.

The Rogue Valley boasts four regular venues for swing dancing, and there is some kind of dance event every week of the year, including two workshops that often feature past finalists from "Dancing With the Stars."

The next Medford Jazz Jubilee is in October, so there's plenty of time to learn to swing.

Abby Stone and Chris Toll dance the West Coast Swing during a recent Thursday at the Evergreen Ballroom in Medford. - Photo by Denise Baratta