Anne Atherling views herself as an unofficial promoter of dance for the past two decades in the Boston area. She looks back with modest joy on her years coordinating National Ballroom Dance Week, cofounding the Massachusetts Ballroom Dancers Association and the Tango Society of Boston, and renting huge halls for an annual dance bash to ring in her birthday.
But at 81, Atherling is far from sidelined. She still dances five nights a week and twice on Sundays, focusing mostly on the sexy Argentine tango. She struts her stuff at dance studios and halls in Somerville, Cambridge, Brookline, Medford, and at dance clubs at MIT and Harvard University.
“Dancing is physical fitness yet different from sports because we don’t have injuries, in general, and it’s always social,’’ said Atherling, who lives in Cambridge. Then she confidently smiled and added: “My thing is cuddling up to someone and having fun dancing.’’
Her passion for dance is far from unique. The social dance community in Greater Boston is bursting with activity for singles and couples, many of whom took to dancing well into their 50s, after an empty nest or a divorce propelled them to take new steps - literally.
Betty Hood, who won’t reveal her age but says she’s a “senior citizen,’’ said the majority of those signing up for her classes in her home studio in Needham are couples whose children have moved out. “They say, ‘Hey, what do you want to do?’ And they decide, ‘Let’s try dancing.’ ’’
Part of the reason is what they’re watching on television.
“Dance wasn’t popular when I first started taking ballroom classes, but now it’s a craze,’’ Atherling said, referring to shows such as “Dancing With the Stars’’ and “So You Think You Can Dance.’’ “[They] hit the screens and the studios are booming and competitions are full of senior competitors.’’
Some dancers pay for hefty private lessons, while others find free or reasonably priced group lessons. And dance festivals of all kinds fill halls regularly.
Kaveh and Farzi Pahlavan of Newton started dancing together 20 years ago “as soon as our children could baby-sit each other,’’ said Kaveh, 60, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
They started with basic ballroom such as the cha-cha, rumba, and assorted fox trot steps, he recalled, then moved into West and East Coast swing, Lindy Hop, and salsa. For the past eight years, he said, “we’ve landed in tango.’’
“Tango doesn’t put a lot of pressure on your body,’’ he explained.
“This is a dance you can do to the end of your life because you can adjust your energy level,’’ said Farzi, the owner of a preschool who would not give her age despite her striking appearance in a little black dress and stiletto heels.
The couple, who took first place in the US Championship Amateur Salon Tango last summer, dance four to five times a week, even when traveling for conferences. “We’ve danced all over the world,’’ Kaveh said, explaining they often hop off a plane and go dancing for fun - and to chase away jet leg.
They arrived at their level of expertise after years of private lessons but initially took group lessons, which are much less expensive and encourage practicing with a variety of dance partners. “If you want to go for competition you need private lessons,’’ Kaveh said.
While the Pahlavans came to dancing later in life, many return to it after dabbling in their younger years.
Kate Wendt, 61, of Newton Highlands, danced her whole life, mastering ballet and jazz. She discovered Argentine tango at 48 and “fell in love with it.’’ Recently, she has moved on to salsa and West Coast swing.
“Social dancing is a great way to stay connected to people, expand your network of friends, and stay in shape,’’ she said. “I am the same weight and fitness as when I was in high school, so I think it is working for me.’’
Allen Swartz, 70, and Lee Graffeo, who says she is in her 70s, started dancing together seven years ago. Soon it sparked a romantic interest.
In her first marriage, Graffeo said, “dancing was on special occasions only. Then, after the marriage ended, that’s when I went back to ballroom dancing again, in my 40s.’’ Now she and Swartz mostly dance tango and West Coast swing.
Swartz had danced in his youth but stopped after college. He’s passionate about it now. “What else would enliven one’s aging than a passion?’’ he said. “Find your passion. If you didn’t find it before, you have a few years left. You’d better address it now.’’
Put your best feet forward
The Internet makes it easy to find dance events, classes, and groups. A good starting point is a website run by Dancenet, which provides information for all dance forms throughout New England at www.havetodance.com.