Dance fitness is about so much more than Zumba – here’s why a good boogie is so good for your body and mind.
If the word ‘dancing’ makes you think of your year four ballet recital or the thing you attempt to do after a few glasses of wine in a bar, know this: dancing – actual, choreographed routines – is having a resurgence. According to Gymcatch, a fitness class booking system, dance and rhythm-related fitness classes have been the most-booked type of exercise for three years in a row. But 2021 saw an even bigger interest than ever before, with a 50% rise in bookings.
But dance fitness has come a long way since its 00s Zumba peak. Classes at boutique gyms such as BLOK and Frame run dance classes designed to make cardio fun, YouTube dance fit videos get millions of views and pole has gone mainstream for the incredible core workout that it offers.
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They’re so mainstream that when I sent out a post asking whether people would consider the training style, I was inundated with messages from people who said that they’d already taken it up. “I started about three years ago after I saw classes advertised at the gym I’d joined after a breakup,” says product manager Ayse Arsu. “Honestly, I’ve never felt so good. Everyone in the classes has good energy, the instructors make it feel like a safe place and the mental benefits are unbelievable.”
And if the thought of dancing in public makes you squirm, take your mind back to lockdown: who didn’t learn a TikTok dance in their kitchen and accidentally work up a sweat? In fact, Stylist’s online deputy editor Katy Harrington swears by at-home dancing. “I’ve never done classes as I’d be too self-conscious, but dancing at home makes me so happy. I do YouTube tutorials and you learn an easy but fun sequence of choreography, then do the dance with the music. Most are under 20 minutes and they’re such a LOL. My FitBit tracks it as HIIT but I barely notice I’m working out because I’m concentrating – so it’s also good for the brain.”
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The benefits of a dance workout
“One of the trends we’ve noticed over recent months is an increase and interest in dance at BLOK,” says head of dance at BLOK studios Jahmarl Crick. “Our BLOKparty class works the body through a series of dance steps and combinations, testing your agility and balance. But while the goal is to challenge the body, we also focus on the mind. When we dance we are using multiple areas of our brain, but most importantly, the thalamus (the section of the brain that controls alertness). Those who incorporate BLOKparty into their training programme improve their responsiveness and alertness, which ultimately increases your physical awareness.”
The research would support these brain-boosting benefits of the workout. A 2017 paper, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, reported that dancing was more effective than endurance training at anti-ageing the brain. After 18 months of either sport, all elderly patients had changes to the hippocampus - but only the dancers had a noticeable difference in behaviour. This is thought to be down to the extra challenge of learning the dance routines alongside the physical activity itself.
The most recent research on dancing focused on the physical benefits: the 2021 study from The North American Menopause Society found that 90 minutes of dancing for three days a week lowered cholesterol levels, improved fitness and body composition in post-menopausal women. But in the process of improving their health, the women also reported improved self-esteem and body confidence.
This empowering element of the sport seems particularly potent for women. “I fell in love with SOS dance classes as they’re all about female empowerment. The goal is that students feel happy, sexy and confident in their bodies and themselves. But we do work up a sweat, so it’s a really fun form of exercise,” says Sally Buch, who works in events but has trained to be a dance teacher since taking the classes.
All types of dance will improve your cardiovascular fitness, supply your body with a load of endorphins and probably improve your strength – though certain types, like ballet or barre, might be better for muscle building than getting sweaty. The most important thing is finding a style you enjoy. Whether that’s shaking your body around your room as you attempt to learn hip-hop style chorography, going to a proper contemporary dance studio or trying one of the many dance fitness classes that are popping up, you can’t go wrong with moving your body to some good music.
“Although some people may find it hard to perform dance routines, perfection shouldn’t be the end goal. Ultimately, you should be there to have fun while achieving cognitive benefits, as well as maximum physical performance,” adds Crick.
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).