Dancing is Bernadine Fawcett's new passion. At 76, she dances seven to 10 hours a week, enjoying the challenge and the way it is helping her become more graceful.

Along the way, she's lost 47 pounds and has gained control of her diabetes. "I've brought my glucose levels to normal," she says proudly. "In fact, they're fabulous!"

Fawcett, a family and marriage counselor from Patchogue, is among many in the Act2 generation who take lessons at dance studios around Long Island. While no one group tracks the number of ballroom dancers, Micki Williams, who owns an Arthur Murray Dance Studio franchise in Bay Shore, estimates that 60 to 65 percent of her students are over age 50, with women far outnumbering men.

Dance fans tout the social and physical benefits of dancing, but learning dance patterns offers other benefits, too. "It's good for mental skills," says Donna DeSimone of Mastic, an instructor who teaches at Bet U Can Dance Studio in East Northport. "It forces dancers to remember - dancing, counting steps and learning patterns. It keeps everything functioning." 

Dance for your mind
According to a 2003 study at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine summarized in The New England Journal of Medicine, the complexity of ballroom dancing is associated with a lowered risk of dementia. The challenging aspects of dancing - following intricate dance steps, moving in time and staying with the rhythm of music - are believed to be responsible.

Dance instructor Lisa Rodriguez works with student Joe Powers at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Bay Shore. (April, 2010) Photo Credit: Ed Betz

Watching the ABC hit "Dancing With the Stars" rekindled Fawcett's love of dance. A year ago, she signed up for ballroom lessons in East Northport with Bet U Can Dance Studio owner Jeff Sherman. "My husband was gone 18 years, and he didn't dance anyway," she says. "I like to do things I'm passionate about, and dance is my new passion."

advertisement | advertise on newsday

How much does she spend on lessons? "Too much," she answers. "But it's well worth it. I love people, and I come a lot." She views the expense as a health investment. "My memory and focus have improved and I feel much, much better," she says. "And the joy I get from it is well worth it. My kids say, 'Go for it.' "

There's ballroom dancing just about any night on Long Island. Studios offer individual and group lessons during the week, and dances on the weekends. And if a studio is too intimidating, there are dances in Veterans of Foreign War halls.

Websites dancin.com and danceschedule.com provide information on the locations and costs for a night of dancing. Enthusiasts seem to love it, no matter the dance's country of origin. International ballroom dancing is characterized by complex footwork and closed holds. American style has more open and separated dance movements, as well as closed.

"In international style, you're never separate from your partner," says Marek Wasaznik, who teaches at Bet U Can Dance and has been an instructor for 23 years. "In American style, you can swing out and hold hands."

Wasaznik and Fawcett work on her form as he leads her around the floor. She's more interested in learning how to follow a partner than learning a routine "because, when you're social dancing, if you can't follow, you won't be able to dance," she says.

Judi Ramirez of Huntington Station plans to dance at her son's wedding in July, but that's just one of the reasons the 54-year-old is taking ballroom lessons. "I'm having a great time doing it. It's a very social environment, and it's easy to meet people," she says. "If I'm stressed from the day, I forget all about it while I'm dancing."

She and Sherman have an easy rapport as they segue from salsa to East Coast swing, to the hustle at the Bet U studio. "He's always moving my chin so I look to the right," says the 54-year-old Ramirez. "I'm working on my form."

Joe Powers, 62, of West Islip, found his way to the dance floor two years ago. He retired in 2006 after 35 years as a social studies teacher at Freeport High School, but his retirement plans changed when his wife, Patricia, died in 2005. "I was looking for something to do. Somebody put the bug in my ear, and I had seen the sign for years" advertising the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Bay Shore.

"Before I walked in here, I hadn't even thought about dancing. I didn't know what a merengue was, or the difference between a samba and a salsa. It's not the kind of music I had on my iPod," he said with a laugh. His preference has been for '60s rock, but now he's downloaded some rumba and tango music.

Powers took to dance for its social aspects. "You become like a family. It's like that show 'Cheers' - everybody knows your name. I started dating someone, and we're a serious couple."

advertisement | advertise on newsday

He spends $300 a month for his multiple-year Century Club membership package of 100 private lessons that includes shoes, special occasion trips, unlimited group lessons and practice socials.

"I don't travel, so this is what I do," he says.

Powers enjoys the compliments he gets when he partners with his friend Cathy Salgado, 63, Bay Shore, on the dance floor. "We've even gotten applause," he laughs.

In March, he performed in his first dance competition - a waltz with his instructor, Lisa Rodriguez. Now he's preparing for another competition in August. His level of confidence doing dance moves has come as a surprise. "If you had told me when I started that I'd be performing in front of judges, I'd have said, 'No way.' "