Dance Your Way to Fitness

By Cathy Ulrich

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring/Summer 2006.

Marcia McConnell is attractive and trim, and in the six years I’ve known her (we share an office suite), I had no idea she was a dancer. “Oh yes,” she said when we went out to lunch recently. “I danced tap as a little girl. I loved it. Then we moved, and the only kind of dance available in my new town was ballet. I think ballet is beautiful, but it’s not for me. I quit dancing but always wanted to get back to tap.”

This psychotherapist and life coach from Fort Collins, Colo., has found her passion in an unlikely place — the dance floor and stage. McConnell’s face shines when she talks about tap. “I found a class offered by City Parks and Recreation and decided to sign up about a year and a half ago.”

Dancing has brought McConnell new vitality, greater endurance, and a childlike sense of delight. She’s more conscious of her balance and more aware of her body. “I know what I need to work on to strengthen and build endurance — tap dancing has given me an incentive to develop my body so I can dance longer and progress in my abilities.”

Health Benefits of Dance

Cardiovascular Fitness and Weight Management — As a response to the epidemic of obesity and heart disease in the United States, the American Heart Association suggests that most people get 30 to 60 minutes of moderate activity most days of the week. Walking, jogging, and cycling are considered moderate activities, but many people find exercise for the sake of exercise boring. They start a regimen with good intentions, but the workout routine is the first thing to go when life’s pressures invade.

Dancing is a great moderate cardiovascular workout. Some forms of dance can even be considered high level activity. A person weighing 150 pounds will burn 374 calories doing fast ballroom dancing for an hour. A similar-sized person will burn 306 calories in the same time period dancing swing, country and western, or belly dancing — more than brisk walking which burns 258 calories per hour.

Balance and Coordination — As people age, loss of balance and coordination is a primary cause of falls and broken bones. Strong core muscles in the back and abdomen are key for keeping balance. Dancing is a great way to develop and maintain balance because it challenges core muscles with every move. As a dancer develops her skill, she’ll naturally improve her balance which is carried into all other aspects of her life.

Body Awareness — Knowing where his body is in space, sensing what he’s doing with his feet and hands, noticing how he shifts his weight, and feeling his movements in relation to his partner’s or other dancers — all of these abilities develop as
a dancer improves his skill. Someone with refined body awareness will also have improved posture and a sense of lightness and presence.

Strong Bones — Known to reduce osteoporosis (the loss of bone mass, especially in women), weight-bearing activities are crucial to bone health. Dancing increases weight bearing through the long bones in the legs. Weight shifting of the torso during dance moves helps to increase bone mass in the spine as well.

Dance Styles

Dance is as much a part of human culture as is music and food. There are literally thousands of dances and hundreds of dance styles. Here is a short list of some of the more popular dance categories:

Ballroom Dance — Fox trot, waltz, tango, Latin dances (including salsa, merengue, and mambo), and swing are taught under the umbrella of ballroom dance. Many take a class to be able to dance at a wedding and then discover how much they enjoy the exercise and challenge. Classes and private lessons are offered in dance schools, as well as community centers, and instructional videos are readily available.

Country and Western Dance — Texas two-step, East and West Coast Swing, country waltz, and line dancing define this group. There are some commonalities between steps in ballroom dance and country and western, but the rhythms and music are different. Many country and western dance clubs offer free lessons on the premises where students can show up early for a class and stay for the evening to practice.

Irish Step Dance — Based on traditional Irish jigs and reels, Irish dancing has gained tremendous popularity in North America since the introduction of the Riverdance troupe in 1995. A key element of Irish step dance is that dancers hold arms and hands close to the torso so balance must come from core strength, not from the arms. There are instructional videos for Irish step dance, as well as schools throughout the country.

Ballet — For decades, ballet has been the standard dance form for children, but ballet classes for adults have become popular as well. Often adults who danced as kids return to ballet for fitness, but people who have never tried ballet are also drawn to it for the benefits of flexibility, strength, and endurance.

Dancing as a Way of Life

Petite and athletic Christine Hudson, a 27-year-old software designer, says of her passion for swing dancing: “I’ve been dancing since I took a ballroom class in college in 1999. I really recommend that people take lessons: They build confidence and it’s much more fun when you know what you’re doing. Dancing is not only a form of exercise for me, it’s a form of communication. It’s a cool conversation totally through the language of hands and body. I like to jump around for several hours and I definitely feel tired after an evening of dancing. I’ve met some wonderful people and dancing has helped my balance for rock climbing.”

Meanwhile, McConnell, who has rekindled her passion for dance, is rehearsing three times a week for a community review. “I can’t imagine my life at this point without tap.”