Many of us took ballet lessons as kids or watched our children don sparkly stage outfits for their own dance recitals. For some reason, though, as the years pass, very few young women and men continue with dance. And some never even start, despite dreams of twirling across the floor. Perhaps they had a little stage fright, or simply enjoyed dance but didn't want to turn it into a career. The good news is that these days, there's a widely accessible approach to dance that is catching on in cities all across the country: dancing for fitness. You can have all the enjoyment of dancing regularly, but this time around, with a focus on physical, mental and emotional health.
Build Up While Breaking It Down
Physical benefits of dancing include body conditioning, increased metabolic rate, improved muscular endurance, flexibility, improved coordination and improved rhythm. One of the most basic benefits, though, is that it challenges your heart with every routine. "Dancing is actually a very high demand form of exercise," says Erroll Bailey, MD, of Resurgens Orthopaedics. "It stresses cardiovascular, coordination, strength and endurance." The CDC recommends two hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week. Taking a few dance lessons throughout the week can definitely cover that requirement. Whether you're perfecting your plié or learning to pop and lock in a hip hop class, you'll consistently be moving and reaping the benefits of an increased heart rate. "[Dance] is very equivalent to playing a sport," points out Nicole Kedaroe, Community Programs and Adult Division manager at Atlanta Ballet. "You're always moving."
In addition to getting your heart in shape, Decatur School of Ballet instructor Jessica Reese says, "Dancing helps you develop long, lean, strong muscles." But what exactly makes dance such a great muscle sculptor? Let's look at the technical side of it.
Dance includes movements that are both isometric and isotonic. Isotonic exercises are ones you're probably familiar with from gym workouts – squats, lunges and bicep curls, for example – that involve a lifting and lowering phase. Isometric exercises, on the other hand, involve very little joint movement, instead focusing on muscles bearing weight – these are exercises like planks, or a bridge pose in yoga, where your muscles may get shaky from the continued exertion. When you take a dance class like ballet, jazz, or even contemporary or modern, the huge variety of choreography will no doubt include both isotonic and isometric movements, helping build overall strength for every muscle group.
Styles like belly dance even offer unique muscle strengthening benefits, like preparing the muscles a woman needs for childbirth. "Even if my heart rate never goes up, I'm getting all of those other things," Reese says.
Dance Down Memory Lane
Dancers of any age will see increased cardiovascular ability and muscle strength, but older dancers can gain benefits beyond the physical. Dance has been scientifically proven to improve mental health, too. "It's an intellectual stimulation as well as a mental one. It's mathematical and intricate," Reese says.
Kristine Knipp, director and owner of Ballroom Dance Clubs of Atlanta, cites research from a 2003 study published in "The New England Journal of Medicine." The study found, "Ballroom dancing at least twice a week makes people less likely to develop dementia," she says. This was more than the reduction in risk from reading or doing crossword puzzles. Dance is a good choice of an aerobic activity for older people because it helps keep the mind engaged through moving to music and changing patterns, Knipp explains – everything from counting beats in the music, to incorporating rhythm and geometric patterns, to being aware of your physicality in space. And that's just the beginning; in some classes, you even learn about the history of dance.
Even if the effects of aging have already begun to set in, dance can still be beneficial. "Fitness is a vital component of programs geared toward residents with dementia to help lead to a brain-healthy lifestyle," says Molly Boone, memory care director at Emeritus at Sandy Springs Place. "Aerobic exercise causes the heart rate to increase, thus increasing the level of oxygen to the brain, an important biological process that creates an optimal environment for the nerve cells in the brain to communicate with one another. Various parts of the brain are stimulated as messages from the external environment, such as the sound of music, are filtered to areas of the brain that control rhythm, coordinate movement, sequencing and a number of other operations controlled by the brain."
Sue Schroeder, artistic director of CORE Performance Company, often works with seniors, using dance to help them recover. "We say, 'move it or lose it.' You have to keep things moving to be agile." With Alzheimer's and stroke patients, the goals are different, but the movement of dance helps with both. With stroke, you activate and rewire the brain with cross-body movement. For Alzheimer's patients, the problem is in another part of the brain and the body's ability to remember. This could be spatial, kinetic or touch memory. "We get them moving and incorporate stories from their own long term memories," she says. "They really blossom. When you can draw on something of the time and place for them, it relaxes them and excites them."
Do a Happy Dance
Whether or not you're dancing for mental fitness, a regular dance practice certainly can contribute to emotional health. "Dance is a stress reliever, and I think the music aspect adds to that. When you hear music, there is a change in emotion. You may not even realize it," says Kristy McCarley, founder of Shazzy Fitness, a company that has a series of dance fitness DVDs fusing modern dance with faith-based contemporary music. "There is a mood change from the time you start [a class] to the time that you finish. People who dance know this. There is something that goes on physically and psychologically when you dance, and it can last for the whole day."
Another way dance can elevate mood and increase your happiness is through its social aspect. "Nobody is a stranger if you're a dancer," Knipp says. "Chronic stress, depression and social isolation all wreak havoc with memory and add to cognitive deterioration, but ballroom dancing can keep you current and flexible, both physically and emotionally."
Plus, if you just need something to break the monotony of the treadmill, dance fits the bill. "I love to dance for exercise because I don't love going to the gym," says Emily Harrison, former Atlanta Ballet company dancer who is a registered dietitian and oversees the Centre for Dance Nutrition at Atlanta Ballet. "I think dance is the best activity. It's just so physically demanding, and it's mentally demanding. It's fun and it's social."
Take Your Pick
No matter what your preference or skill level, Atlanta is home to a variety of dance classes like salsa, belly dancing, Capoeira (a Brazilian style of dance) and tap, just to name a few. Any of these can offer you a myriad of benefits, but you should also consider your personal preferences when choosing the best type of dance for you. Ask yourself the following questions, and then go cut a rug!
What am I looking for in a dance class? What are my goals? If you seek technique, maybe ballet is the right class. If you simply want a good workout, hip hop or tap will get you moving right away. If you're looking to make friends, try a weekly social at a ballroom dance studio where you can try new moves with new people.
What is my ideal type of class? Are you interested in a small class or one that is more packed? Try several different classes to find your groove. Many studios have free introductory classes or passes. "We offer intro through advanced [classes]," Kedaroe says. Like many studios, at Atlanta Ballet, adult classes can be taken on a drop-in basis.
What is my limit? How fast-paced do I want the class to be? "If you are young, it's just another sport," Dr. Bailey says. However, for anyone who has had a heart attack or stroke or experiences joint problems or arthritis, high impact dancing is not recommended.
What kind of music do I like? "The music can make all the difference in the world," McCarley says.
Would I prefer a group class or private lessons? Particularly with ballroom dancing, private lessons can be helpful for couples looking to reconnect or for those who might not enjoy learning through a group class.
What do I need in an instructor? Some are more technical; some are more fun. Find out how long he or she has been teaching and how much direction is provided.
Erroll Bailey, MD, Resurgens Orthopaedics – www.resurgens.com
Molly Boone, Emeritus at Sandy Springs Place – www.emeritus.com
Emily Harrison, Atlanta Ballet – www.atlantaballet.com
Nicole Kedaroe, Atlanta Ballet – www.atlantaballet.com
Kristine Knipp, Ballroom Dance Clubs of Atlanta – www.myballroomdanceclub.com
Kristy McCarley, Shazzy Fitness – www.shazzyfitness.com
Jessica Reese, Decatur School of Ballet – www.decaturballet.com
Sue Schroeder, CORE Studios – www.coredance.org