Yes, You Can Dance With Arthritis

Dancing with the Stars’ Louis Van Amstel tells how to have fun on the dance floor—minus the pain.

Linda Childers
Photo Credit: ©(ABC/CRAIG SJODIN)

Emmy-nominated choreographer Louis Van Amstel has a lot of fancy footwork on tap: He’s teamed with singer and actress Sabrina Bryan for the fall 2012 season—and first all-star version—of Dancing with the Stars (DWTS), which features previous champs and fan favorites from the past 14 seasons for a winner-take-all showdown.

And while Louis speaks fondly of his eight previous DWTS partners—including actress Kelly Osbourne, who lost 20 pounds during her stint on the show—he’s especially proud of one of his latest students: “My mom!” he says. “She suffers from osteoarthritis (OA) in her knee and recently started taking my dance classes.”

The most gratifying part, reveals Louis, is how much better his mom says she feels afterward. “Dancing is the perfect exercise—you get a full-body workout, can lose excess weight, improve your muscle tone and joint mobility, increase endurance and strengthen your bones,” notes the 40-year-old dancer.

And if you’re thinking all that twisting and turning would only aggravate your joints, Louis says that won’t be the case if you pace yourself and are mindful of proper techniques. “Many people who take my classes are baby boomers who have some form of arthritis. Most of them can work around mild symptoms, but if a particular dance move causes pain, I show them how to modify it—or how to slow it down,” says Louis, who has also shown competitive dancers how to wow the judges on So You Think You Can Dance. “If students feel uncomfortable doing a step such as the cha-cha because it’s causing knee pain, I’d rather see them only do two out of the seven dance moves and just work on keeping the rhythm.”

We asked Louis to share a few simple adjustments that can help you sidestep joint pain and merengue to your heart’s content. Just be sure to check with your healthcare provider before hitting the dance floor.

If dancing causes...

Knee pain. Louis insists you can join in most dances with this simple swap: “Instead of doing high-impact jumping moves or lunges, you can march in place or tap forward, alternating between your left and right foot.”

Lower back pain. Focus on your abs! “Contract your stomach muscles to make controlled movements that protect your back,” suggests Louis. “A strong core will lower your chances of injury while dancing.” Louis’ favorite way to strengthen his midsection? Pilates, which not only builds muscle strength but also improves your posture, taking stress off the spine.

Hip pain. Louis’ tips: “If you can’t stand for long periods, grab a chair and do a seated cha-cha or some disco arm moves.” And never favor one side to avoid stressing your “good” hip.

If you want a total-body workout...

Dance with dumbbells. "Dancing is a cardio workout, but you can also incorporate light weights to increase intensity and provide a strength-training component," notes Louis, who does just that in his fitness-based LaBlast dance DVDs (found at, which progress from levels 1 to 5, starting with beginner workouts and building to 15-minute muscle-toning sessions done with weights.

If you’re at a total loss...

Clap to the beat! If your feet start failing you mid-dance, just put your hands together, says Louis. “If you can clap the rhythm, then you can dance it!”

Tap an expert. If you’re taking a class, tell the instructor ahead of time about your arthritis and ask what adjustments you can make to avoid joint pain. Rather go solo? Louis suggests that if you want to work out with a dance video at home, meet with a physical therapist first who can show you how to adapt the moves.

Tell your healthcare provider. Let the doctor know your goal, whether it’s line dancing, taking a Zumba class or mastering a dance video. There’s probably a way to time your pain meds or try options like knee braces that can bring enough relief to help achieve your goal.

A peek at Louis' playlist

We asked the dance pro what kind of music helps him stay motivated during a workout. His top picks:

'70s dance music (aka disco!):
"Boogie Wonderland," by Earth, Wind & Fire
"That's the Way I Like It," by KC and the Sunshine Band
"You Should Be Dancing," by the Bee Gees

Current pop music:
"California Gurls," by Katy Perry
"I Wanna Go," by Britney Spears
"Birthday Cake," by Rihanna

October 2012