Bill Nye tests the benefits of swing dancing

Bill Nye stays in shape by swing dancing. Here he dances with Rusty Frank at a weekly Rusty’s Rhythm Club swing dance with live music at the Elks Lodge in Playa del Rey. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

Bill Nye, the Emmy-winning ‘Science Guy’ and author, says the proof of swing dancing’s benefits is in the exercise, the music and, well, the physical contact.

Bill Nye might rightly be called a swing-dancing fanatic. So he sounded none too pleased at having to leave the floor after a stint on “Dancing With the Stars” left him with a painful tear to his quadriceps tendon.

Weeks of physical therapy and weightlifting later, Nye, 59, recently returned in baggy pants and suede-soled shoes to the Elks Lodge in Playa del Rey for the Wednesday night swing dances organized by dancer and teacher Rusty Frank.

An Emmy winner as “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” he has also worked as a comic, an actor and an engineer, and now is the head of the Planetary Society and an author. He advocates for climate change awareness and action.

Tell me about your relationship to swing dancing.

My parents used to go dancing all the time, and I presume being of the World War II era, they were swing dancing. They were members of something called the Friday Night Chowder and Marching Society, which, as I look back, was a euphemism for swing dancing. … I was swing dancing in Seattle, certainly when I was 23, which is getting to be some time ago.

Learning the fundamentals is one thing. Getting to the point where women don’t mind dancing with you is a whole other. To men, it’s at least six months. And at that point, I strongly recommend you preface it with “I’m just learning.” The women — some roll their eyes, and I don’t blame them, and others say, “That’s all right. We were all beginners once.”

What appeals to you about swing dancing?

The music is fantastic. … And I cannot emphasize this enough: Women you do not know, you don’t even know their first name, they want you to hold them. They expect you to take hold of them. It’s wonderful. It’s fantastic.

It keeps you really fit. You come home really having perspired a great deal.

I’ve heard that swing dancing can help stave off dementia?

Huh? What? [Laughs.] It’s very reasonable, because you have to use your brain all the time, and you are active. All these studies about how walking staves off dementia? You’re more than walking for hours at a time. At least when you are the leader, I won’t call it anxiety or terror or trauma, but you’re always concerned with the next phrase.

But you stuck with it?

Oh, yeah. It’s the coolest thing ever. The reason I couch it in these terms is because, as the leader, you are always anxious that the woman would rather be dancing with someone who’s better. But I think I am to the point where women don’t mind it. … Swing dancing is the greatest fun there is. You feel like you are flying. … I guess it’s like when you learn any sport: Once in a while you get a hit, you return the tennis ball. It’s very athletic.

What are your eating habits?

Compared to a lot of people, my eating habits are good, really fantastic. I am amazed at the stuff people eat. I am not a raving vegan, white sugar is death. I am not at that level. The big thing I do that a lot of people don’t do is I don’t eat more than I need. … I just notice when I’ve had enough to eat. Also, my grandmother is French, and there’s a lot of that culture where these people talk about food all day. They talk about what they’re going to have, they talk about they eat and they compare to the thing the last time they had the thing. But they don’t eat too much of it. So some of that culture got into my family. My mother was very good; we always had a green vegetable at dinner. And I can cook. I’m not a genius, but I can cook.