On the stage, Thelma Ferguson has the moves, twirling and keeping in step with the other dancers.

But she's only a novice — one of many.

The 50-year-old suburban mom is taking dance lessons to drop some weight and feel better.

"Everybody wants to stay in shape," says the trim Ferguson. "I think it's kept me young. People say, 'You don't look 50.'"

Dance studios often cater to the serious hobbyist or pro who wants to keep in top form. But Ofelia Stromquist, founder and owner of Dance 101 in Atlanta, found another group of customers: novices whose only knowledge of dancing comes from movies and TV and who want to dance to be fit.

The dancing-for-exercise trend is unfolding all across the country, said Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist and a vice president with the American Council on Exercise.

"People are looking for a more engaging alternative to their traditional workout," Bryant said.

For Ferguson, the basic dance lessons have led to more adventurous curriculum — she's advanced to belly dancing lessons with her daughter.

"Everybody's doing it now," Ferguson says of dance classes. "Everybody wants to stay in shape."

On ABC's "Dancing With The Stars, where celebrities partner up with professionals to compete against other dance pairs, some participants have bragged of losing weight and feeling better through their training for the live show. Actress Tia Carrere, who recently had her first child, says she signed up to lose the extra pounds gained during pregnancy.

The message that dancing can be a fun way to get in shape is spreading. Janell Goplen, the owner of TurnOut Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, opened her studio eight months ago to attract dance novices and now has 380 students taking everything from salsa to tap dance.

"It's huge here," Goplen said. "There's a need for it. There's tons of studios in L.A. where you can see the professional dancers, but if you've never taken dance before, there's no way you can jump in and dance with them."

Dancing is a "wonderful form of exercise" because the entire body gets a workout, improving the body's major muscle groups, said Bryant, the exercise expert. Dancing is also low-impact, joint-friendly, and makes exercise fun, he said.

Billed as "Atlanta's Best Alternative to the Gym," Dance 101 was created with the idea that "exercise doesn't have to be boring or tedious," Stromquist said. "Dancers have the most beautiful bodies ... and they don't train at the gym."

Stromquist says her instructors teach actual dance moves professionals use, including some she's choreographed for television.

"I don't want to compromise the artistic integrity of dance classes," she says.

Jerry Nash, 46, took up dancing more than a year ago after his weight ballooned to 260 pounds after business travel cut into his exercise time. At 6-foot-1, his extra weight made it too hard on his knees to run.

"My doctor wasn't happy," Nash said.

So he started with Dance 101's conditioning and stretching class and a year later is taking several kinds of dance classes a week. In a year, he dropped 55 pounds and his blood pressure recently was a low 110 over 60.

"It got me to where I was light enough of a weight where my knees can stand running again," Nash said. "The weight loss is enough, my flexibility is much better. It's also good because when you have a dance class scheduled, it sometimes gets you out of the office."