The story behind dancing

Dance. This word probably inspires one of several emotions: admiration, boredom, joy, or fear. Some people appreciate the art of dance. Some tune into reality TV shows to watch celebrities huffing and puffing through choreographed routines. For others, dance means a snooze-fest ballet recital or something that they are totally afraid of doing outside the privacy of their own bathroom or bedroom.

For those who really take pleasure in movement and music, who can "shake their thang" like it "ain't no thang," dance can be an awesome all-around workout. Dance enlivens your body, mind, and spirit, and it's easy to lose yourself in the rhythm and movement. Before you know it, you're sweating, your heart rate is increased, and you've awakened muscles you probably didn't even know you had.

Group dance classes and individual lessons are widely available in gyms and community centres. And dance is a truly global workout: nearly every culture in the world has its own unique dance forms that you can try out for fun and for fitness.

The benefits of dancing

  • Conga away the calories: Dances like the hula or belly dancing can burn about 300 calories an hour, but really high-impact aerobic dancing can burn off nearly 500 calories. The more distance you cover, the more calories you'll burn. Square dancers strapped with pedometers were found to travel about 5 miles in one dancing session! Even Dance Dance Revolution, the uber-popular interactive video game, burns about as many calories as a 12-mph to 14-mph bike ride.
  • Build bone strength: Most forms of dance get you sliding across the floor and shimmying and shifting from side to side. These actions all strengthen the weight-bearing bones in your legs - helping to slow bone loss.
  • Better your balance: Almost any dance is going to challenge and hone your sense of balance. Tango in particular has been shown to help improve the balance and movement of people with Parkinson's disease.
  • Variety is the soul of pleasure: Ever been on a treadmill? Ever been bored on a treadmill? If you enjoy lots of variety in your exercise routine, the treadmill is probably not a top exercise contender for you. Dance, by its very nature, is about variety. Dance engages the human body, a form of so many moveable parts. There is practically an infinite number of ways to move the body, to combine those movements, and to put them to music.
    Multiply all those possibilities by the number of cultures and movement traditions in the world, and you have an endless list of dance-for-fitness options to choose from! You could try everything from the alegrias to the zapateado (both, coincidentally, from Spain). You could also try Middle Eastern belly dance or Brazilian capoeira. Hip-hop or hula? Square dancing or clogging? Tarantella or Texas-Two-Step?
  • Steps vs. stress: Group and partner dance classes bring us out of our workout cocoons and connect us to other people. When we dance, we socialize, we laugh, and we learn to not take ourselves too seriously as we alternately stumble and soar.

The warnings about dancing

  • Find your own rhythm: Yes, dance is for everyone, but it's not a one-size-fits-all kind of physical activity. Not everyone is well-suited for the acrobatic moves of capoeira, and not everyone has the patience to get through even a one-minute waltz. Shy sorts may have a hard time letting go and getting into a groove. Know your own body and know your own limits as you try out new forms of dance. Check with your doctor before starting any really strenuous or challenging dance activity.
  • Safely surrender to the dance: Dance requires taking risks, letting go of inhibitions, and throwing one's self into the moment and the movements. The struggle is to find the balance between liberating your body to new kinds of movement and protecting it from injury. Dancers are prone to a whole host of aches, pains, and sprains. Especially common are knee injuries, impact fractures from jumping and leaping, and all sorts of foot troubles.

What you need for dancing

  • Comfy clothes and shoes: Wear something light and comfortable that allows for movement. You don't want to spend the whole class tugging at the bottom of an ill-fitted shirt. Some dances have special costumes or shoes, so check with your instructor for the fashion do's and don'ts.
  • A good sense of humour: Lots of studios have mirrored walls, you know. Be prepared to see yourself looking goofy and uncoordinated now and then. Don't take yourself too seriously, loosen up, and the moves will come. You'll eventually catch your reflection in the mirror and smile with pride instead of embarrassment.

Inspiration to get you going

  • "On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined." - Lord Byron
  • "Dance is the hidden language of the soul." - Martha Graham
  • "Let us read and let us dance - two amusements that will never do any harm to the world." - Voltaire

Amy Toffelmire