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BENBROOK In the Benbrook Middle School gym, boys and girls are working up a sweat. However, instead of sports, the children are dancing cheek-to-cheek.

The students are lab rats of sorts for a ballroom dancing experiment. They're being hooked up to fitness and heart monitors for a week as part of a University of Texas at Arlington study.

'It's going to tell us what kind of cardiovascular response they're getting with the dance program,' explained UTA kinesiology professor Dr. Larry Nelson. 'It's also going to tell us how much physical activity is the dance providing.'

Nelson and other researchers are gathering the data to determine if the nationally-known program called Dancing Classrooms could serve as a substitute for physical education.

Experts know that once kids get to middle school, physical activity slows down for students not involved in sports, which places them at greater risk for obesity. Ballroom dancing is an alternative to traditional athletics.

'We're finding dancing in classrooms is about the same as what kids would get playing volleyball in physical education,' Nelson said.

In more than a dozen North Texas schools, Dancing Classrooms has been used primarily in fifth grade, where the program meets elementary physical education standards. If results of the UTA study are positive, Dancing Classrooms could be expanded beyond the pilot programs in middle school.

The study at Benbrook Middle School is aimed at expanding the experience and enhancing the workout by increasing the tempo of the music for each dance and replacing low cardiovascular dances like the waltz with more strenuous numbers like the salsa. Researchers at UTA will be able to measure the physical responses to each dance to determine which ones offer the greatest benefit.

In addition to improved fitness, dancing boasts benefits beyond the ballroom floor.

'We see a lot better attendance rates while the program is going on,' said Tacia Torres, executive director of Dancing Classrooms North Texas. 'We see behavioral referrals reduce greatly.'

Torres said the program also breaks down racial and gender barriers.

'Some of the kids tell us that this program's the first time that they've touched someone of the African-American race, of the Caucasian race, of the Hispanic race, and allowed them to switch partners and be consistently engaged with a different culture and a different person,' she said.

'I thought it was going to be really weird when I first started it,' admitted seventh grader Matthew Walls. 'But, I ended up really liking it.'

Students say after the initial awkwardness wears off, changing health habits through ballroom dancing is fun.

UTA researchers conducted a similar study of fifth graders five years ago. Researchers are still gathering data. Preliminary results of the study involving seventh and eighth graders is expected in May.

E-mail jstjames@wfaa.com

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