ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The lights are dim, the music is pulsing and couples are circling the dance floor in elaborate, revealing costumes.
Salsa dancing helped Carolyn Parera drop 100 pounds and lower her cholesterol and blood pressure.
It's not "Dancing with the Stars," but rather the grand finale performance of the Atlanta Salsa Congress at the Waverly Renaissance Hotel ballroom. On a recent weekend, the events included everything from beginner salsa lessons to choreographed group recitals.
Carolyn Parera, 40, is at the center of the action, twisting and twirling around the room. "Dancing is my passion," Parera declares. "I will dance until the day I die." In addition to the emotional lift, Parera has found surprising health benefits from the regular activity.
A single parent from Atlanta, Georgia, Parera may not appear to be a typical dancer. During the day, she helps run a pediatrician's office, but in her free time she works on improving her moves.
She became interested in salsa five years ago when her teenage daughter was taking dance lessons. Instead of waiting in the car, Parera decided to join them.
"I started enjoying it," says Parera. "As time went along I started losing weight." In fact she has dropped 100 pounds since she began. She also lowered her cholesterol and blood pressure and reduced her reliance on an asthma inhaler.
"I feel wonderful," she says. "My health is much, much better, so that gives me more energy, more motivation, more self-esteem."
Parera was among more than 1,200 people participating in the recent dance congress, organized by salsa instructor Sheila Sampath. She says salsa dancing is more popular than ever, counting more than 50 instructors in Atlanta alone.
Sampath is gratified to hear that salsa dancing is affecting people in positive ways. "Many are realizing the health benefits outside of pure exercise," she says. "It's good for the mind and soul."
Magna Gopal is one of the featured performers at the salsa meet. "It helps me emotionally," she says. "I find that salsa is a release. It doesn't matter what stress is in my life -- when I dance it disappears."
Karen Gant traveled from California to Atlanta for the weekend event. She's been dancing for 45 years and offers her own testimonial. "It keeps my weight down. It keeps me moving, breathing, dancing and exercising constantly."
Sampath says the fancy footwork helps boost confidence. "Those who may normally be shy can display movements or feelings that they may otherwise have felt inhibited to do so."
Sampath says dancing helps to improve relationships as well. "I've had several students tell me it has saved their marriages or they've stopped the need to see a therapist."
Parera reports she's now spending more time with her 17-year old daughter. The two moved side-by-side while taking a group lesson together during the dance weekend. As the instructor counted out loud, the students swayed and stepped to the music.
"The more you hear it, the more you want it," Parera says. "It's like an addiction. You start and you keep going, but in this case you feel healthier." E-mail to a friend
Judy Fortin is a correspondent with CNN Medical News. Associate producer Sabriya Rice contributed to this report.
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