Dance your way to health and happiness

I’m late for my first 5Rhythms Dance class. Dozens of people are dotted around the softly lit room, some swaying, some lying. Limbs move slowly, arc up like waves, roll and close back in again. I dump my water bottle and find a position in the corner, self-consciously adopting a familiar yoga stretch. The music is deep and loud.

“Come back to your body,” croons the facilitator over the microphone. “Listen to what it needs in this moment. Let your body move you.” Closing my eyes, I sink into the floor, tension releasing from my neck as I let it rock loosely from side to side. Suddenly the music changes, picks up pace. Lifting my head I look around, noticing that I’m surrounded by bodies of all shapes and sizes, all ages. I rise to meet them, my feet instinctively picking up the beat.

“The fastest way to still the mind is to move the body,” says the instructor. “Find your own dance and release into it.” The music changes again. Sweat starts running down my back as I twirl and stomp to the thumping track. Faces are open, eyes bright. We dance alone and together, encouraged always to keep following our own rhythms. Waves of sound spiral me up to an ecstatic height. I move as if movement was all I knew, whirling and turning like a leaf in the wind, before winding back gradually to a place of deep peace.

Bathed in the stillness, I find that somehow in that hour I have solved the narrative glitch in my book, decided to buy the campervan I’ve been mulling over and remembered a friend’s birthday. As I gather my things to leave I feel balanced, clear. “See you next week,” I smile to my new playmates.

Stamping feet and spinning bodies

5rhythms dance is just one of a smorgasbord of movement classes I contemplated. From Bollywood to ballet, salsa to swing, gyms and halls across the country are alive with the sounds of stamping feet and spinning bodies. Latino dance festivals spill out onto the streets of most major cities each summer, country town halls are packed to the rafters with Zumba enthusiasts, and gym schedules are more likely to advertise “ridiculously fun” dance classes than aerobic workouts.

According to Gold Coast Zumba fitness instructor, Cass Blazer, it is precisely this injection of “fun” back into “fitness” that is drawing the crowds. With the slogan “Ditch the workout, join the party”, Zumba has been at the forefront of this shift. For a Colombian dance fitness program now attracting upwards of 300,000 people to classes around Australia each week, Zumba has humble beginnings.

When fitness instructor Alberto “Beto” Perez turned up one day in the early 1990s to teach an aerobics class and found he had forgotten his aerobics music, he improvised using his own mix of salsa and merengue music from tapes he had in his backpack. Energy electrified the room, his class loving the freedom to move more fluidly. Spontaneously, the world’s next dance craze was born.

According to Cazz, the main point of difference is that, unlike aerobics, instead of focusing on counting reps of eight over music, Zumba invites participants to prioritise having fun rather than getting the steps right. “Instead of shouting out counts and instructions, Zumba uses non-verbal cues such as gestures of the face and hands. It’s much freer and less regimented than aerobics.

“I tell my students, if you can’t do what I’m doing, then do what you want, as long as you’re moving,” says Cazz. Some of her most committed students are in her weekly adult autism class, some wheelchair bound, some deaf and blind. “Mostly we just tap our feet, clap and sing. I just help them focus back into their bodies and keep their muscles moving and minds alert. It really makes their week,” she says.

None has benefited more from Zumba than Cazz’s mum. Once a “hot” aerobics teacher, for 10 years after a car accident she was too scared to exercise for fear it would exacerbate her back injury. Her self esteem plummeted as her weight grew. Two years ago, at Cazz’s encouragement she went to her first Zumba class and has never looked back. Now, at 61, she is in the front row of four of Cazz’s high-intensity classes a week and has trained as an instructor herself, offering a free weekly class at a nursing home.

“Music and dance are so healing. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to have enjoy it,” says Cazz enthusiastically.

For dance therapist Monique Buggy, the healing power of dance can be traced to the way it works on many levels simultaneously — cognitive, emotional, physical and spiritual. “Dance was our first language. It’s ancient. In many other cultures it is a very normal, integrated part of daily life, but in ours it has become quite closed.

“Dance is a way of getting back into contact with our body intelligence. When I dance I feel like I’m tapping into another part of my brain, like it is translating between mind and body, opening up channels for healing and growth,” says Monique.

Moving body, agile mind

Science is beginning to look at the connections between dance and neuro-plasticity. A 21-year study of senior citizens by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City looked at whether any physical or intellectual recreational activities influenced mental acuity. Out of all the physical activities studied — tennis, golf, swimming, bicycling, dancing, walking and housework — only regular dance resulted in an increase in protection against dementia and was found to offer greater risk reduction then any cognitive practice such as crosswords.

Monique welcomes the current renaissance of interest in dance, with dance therapists now an accepted part of the hospital system. “We are living in really intense times and it’s good to get into contact with the simple joys in life again, like dancing.”

Dance continues to be one of the joys of conservation geographer Daniel Beaver’s life, originally seeking out dance classes 15 years ago when he was a teenager to help him cure a fear of dancing in public. “I knew I wanted to dance but was acutely embarrassed that I had no idea how. I started out in ballroom but quickly discovered Latin. There was a Latin club next door to where I lived, so after a class I would go to the club and try out the moves.”

While regular lessons quickly gave him the confidence to find his own groove in public, Daniel still attends classes, although the reason has changed. “Now it’s more about learning new ways to move my body and to express myself through movement. Because I’ve been dancing for so long, even though there are set steps, I just flow with it. I’m learning new steps all the time but they just get incorporated into my own dance now. My latest passion is a very sexy Jamaican style called Dancehall. I still find dance is a great icebreaker when I’m out. I love it.”

Jessika discovered tango really is the dance of love when she attended a small self-taught group in Newcastle five years ago. “When I first saw tango I was immediately drawn to it. It has a sensibility about it. The steps are beautifully intricate but not showy.

“It was a double love affair,” says Jessika. “I fell in love with the dance and with my dance partner at the same time, on the same day.” She describes the journey of learning tango as mirroring the journey of the relationship. “At first you stumble a bit; there are complications and technicalities. You have to be patient and go through the initiation. After a while, though, you just surrender into a receptive presence and let the dance take you.

“Now I can just close my eyes in the embrace and allow myself to be danced by my partner and by the song,” she says. “The dance helps maintain a beautiful connection between us and with something larger than us. It’s quite magical.”

It was this feeling of connection with what 5Rhythms dance teacher Michelle Mahrer calls “divine presence” through movement that led her to a lifelong study of dance forms. “I have danced all my life, studying ballet as a child,” she says. “When I moved to New York in the late 80s I began studying with teachers that showed me a whole new way of moving. I learnt how to let go of structure and form, to relax the mind and allow the inner dance to unfold, opening to the dance of my soul.”

Michelle’s passion for dance took her around the world exploring the common thread of experience in both traditional and modern-day dance rituals. The resulting documentary, Dances of Ecstasy, is a celebration of the universal human instinct to dance. “When I dance, I am filled with creative energy, joy, radiance and a feeling of wellbeing that seems to come from a deep inner place. I am no longer dancing but being danced.”


Choose your groove

A is for African: Often accompanied by live drumming, African dance is high energy while still allowing you to go at your own pace. The choreography is usually West African, providing a full-body workout while giving you the freedom to express yourself to the powerful beat of African music.

B is for belly dancing: Hailing from the Middle East, the graceful hip drops, rolls, and pivots of this dance form utilise muscle groups in the abdomen, pelvis, trunk, spine and neck. Specifically suited to women, the movements of circles, figure eights and shimmies put the joints and ligaments in the lower back and hip through a full range of gentle, repetitive motion, helping relieve stress to the back. A good prenatal workout.

F is for 5Rhythms dance: This movement meditation practice, developed by Gabrielle Roth in the USA, leads participants through a series of five basic rhythms: flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness. Rather than having steps to follow, each rhythm is a different energy field in which you are encouraged to find your own expression and choreography. It is interactive, with some partner and group work. Suitable for all fitness levels and ages.

J is for Jazzercise: Jazzercise classes are a fusion of jazz dance, resistance training, Pilates, yoga and kickboxing. Jazzercise uses dance-based cardio with strength training and stretching to sculpt, tone and lengthen muscles for maximum fat burn, with a 60-minute class reputedly burning up to 600 calories.

H is for hip-hop: Although hip-hop is generally geared towards the younger generations, all ages can now learn the urban LA arts of “locking”, “popping”, “tutting”, “waving” and the “boogalu”. Fantastic for rhythm and co-ordination, if nothing else it will give you a good laugh.

L is for Latin: Latin American dance covers everything from the cha-cha-chá and rumba through to mambo, salsa and bolero. Enormously popular, Latin dance is high-energy and offers a great way of getting a good cardio workout (salsa dancers burn more than 420 calories an hour), while toning abs, hips, thighs and buttocks. Most dances are partnered, with classes tailored to beginners through to advanced.

R is for rockabilly: With its roots in hillbilly, country and black rhythm and blues, rockabilly is enjoying a major revival. Hoot and holler your way through jive, swing or rock around the clock to an original Elvis soundtrack. Fast-paced and fun, the twist is definitely good for the waistline — no argument.

Z is for Zumba: Zumba fitness classes incorporate hip-hop, soca, samba, salsa, merengue, mambo, martial arts and some Bollywood and belly-dance moves with some squats and lunges thrown in for good measure. With fun and easy steps, Zumba is suitable for all ages and levels of fitness. But be warned: the average 60-minute class could cost you 1000 calories.


Claire Dunn is a freelance journalist and workshop facilitator based in Bellingen in northern NSW, Australia.

Claire Dunn

Claire Dunn

Claire Dunn is the author of My Year Without Matches: Escaping the City in Search of the Wild, available in bookshops and online.

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