NEW YORK — Crawl, walk, run, dance: It's the natural progression of movement for young children. That goes for both girls and boys.

Toddlers in particular love to dance even if there is no music to be heard. But sooner or later a little boy who loves to dance — be it ballet or boogieing — might find himself the victim of ridicule.

The best defense, says choreographer Brian Thomas, is to point out to the bullies doing the mocking that dance is probably the most physically demanding "sport" of all.

"Ballet is one of the hardest things you can do. It's harder than martial arts, basketball, football, because it's just you out there. You have to really know your body and how your body works," says Thomas.

Children can get their first taste of disciplined dance in the new video "Zoe's Dance Moves," a production of Sesame Workshop and Sony Wonder.

Muppets Zoe and Elmo, two of the most popular "Sesame Street" characters, learn about the "world of dance," including ballet, African, Asian, tap and hip-hop, from Paula Abdul. Thomas choreographed the actual moves, and four other children, two girls and two boys, join in for the final performance. Viewers are encouraged to participate, too.

The dance activities, along with the role play and dress-up elements of the video, can foster creativity and encourage cognitive and physical growth, says Rosemarie Truglio, vice president of education and research for Sesame Workshop. Additionally, including dance steps from different genres likely will help foster a respect and understanding for other cultures, she says.

"Dance is good for your spirit," says Thomas, explaining that jazz is probably more fun while ballet gives a greater sense of accomplishment.

He adds, "I think the biggest thing that kids and adults get out of dance is confidence. Just like with any sport, it's a way to challenge yourself, grow and give you that confidence."

Growing up in Saginaw, Mich., Thomas, now 33, says he wasn't given an opportunity to take dance classes even though he has been interested in the art of movement since childhood. The next best thing was karate.

"I was interested more in forms — which is non-aggressive — than combat in martial arts," he says. "I didn't really like beating up someone for points, but I didn't know there was something else out there for me."

Dancing helps create longer, leaner muscles than most other sports and it elongates the spine. Dancers who have a strong "center," the abdominal and lower back muscles, are less likely to suffer back injuries, according to Thomas.

Another benefit is the stamina dancer's develop. Learning to synchronize breathing and the use of muscles not only helps during physical activity, Thomas says, but knowing how to concentrate and control breathing also is a helpful tool when it comes to dealing with stress.

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And, he adds, even a 3-year-old can learn to move gracefully; it's just a matter of teaching a toddler to move his arms and legs in slow, smooth and strong actions.

Thomas says his own son still hasn't fully embraced the idea of ballet class, but the 13-year-old knows that to do any sort of "commercial dance" such as he sees on music videos, he has to learn the basics.

Videos by Michael Jackson and Abdul in the 1980s, which emphasized dance, are what turned Thomas on to his choreography career. He says today's youngsters can look to Lil' Romeo or Usher for that same inspiration.

"Hip-hop and R&B is what made it OK for men to dance," Thomas says.

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