Fun, health and dance unite the AHA and this director

Choreographer Adam Shankman was ready when the American Heart Association asked, “Shall we dance?”   

Shankman is also a film director and co-founder of American Dance Movement, which has a mission of building healthy communities through dance. And dance is part of the Kids Heart Challenge and the American Heart Challenge, AHA programs for elementary, middle and high school students.

Shankman also knows a thing or two about the beauty that can come from two bodies working in sync.

“It seemed like a natural fit,” Shankman said. “There is no disputing the cardiovascular benefits of dancing and also how dancing helps with mood elevation and a variety of ways in which it is, pure and simple, very healthy.”

American Dance Movement, formerly known as the Dizzy Feet Foundation, is the force behind National Dance Day, an annual AHA-sponsored celebration set for Sept. 21. The American Dance Movement created dance videos, led by celebrity dancers, for Heart Challenge participants in more than 34,000 schools.

Participating schools receive materials for classroom lesson plans that use dance to motivate students to make healthier choices. Participants are encouraged to learn the choreographed dances or come up with their own events — anything that encourages students to dance in support of their heart health.

ADM has similar ideas about the power of dance to improve lives, Shankman said.

His own dance life includes appearing in videos for Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson; choreographing for TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer; and directing movies such as the 2007 remake of Hairspray!  Current projects include a sequel to the movie Enchanted. He produced and choreographed the 2010 Academy Awards, which garnered 12 Emmy nominations. He’s also been a judge on So You Think You Can Dance, alongside his friend and fellow choreographer Nigel Lythgoe, the show’s co-creator.

The idea for what became the American Dance Movement started during tryouts for that program, as young people kept coming forward with stories about how dance had transformed their lives and, sometimes, their health.

“Some of the stories were so impactful and devastating that Nigel and I turned to each other and said, ‘We have a responsibility to do something about this,’” Shankman said. “And we've had such massive success.”

Shankman said the foundation has grown over the years, but its focus has remained the same: “The way that dance can sort of bind communities, help with mental health, help with health in general and really just creates a lot …. of love.”

The collaboration with the AHA made sense because, Shankman pointed out, Lythgoe is a heart attack survivor. (As Lythgoe told DanceSpirit magazine, “I'm basically the poster child for this initiative.”)

The ADM and Kids Heart Challenge/American Heart Challenge both want to reach people while they’re young to create healthy life patterns for long-term heart health — and to have fun while they're doing it, Shankman said.   

As he describes it, dance is athleticism without competition. “When you take competition out of physical activity, it's just pure joy. And you're having fun while you're staying healthy. And I think that seems like a good mission for the foundation to pursue.”

Although the three schools that raise the most money through the American Heart Challenge will win celebrity year-end dance party workshops, dance is just one part of the program, which also offers participating high school juniors and seniors the chance to earn $1,000 college scholarships. Visit to learn more.