5 types of dance that will invigorate your body and soul

There’s an ode to living for the moment that includes the line “dance as though no one is watching you”. While dancing with abandon is certainly a powerful way to express joy, the benefits of dance go much deeper. Research shows that dance improves cardiovascular health, increases muscle strength and endurance, boosts self-esteem, confidence and body awareness, promotes weight loss and reduces the risk of osteoporosis.

A study by the UK’s University of Hertfordshire compared members of the Royal Ballet with a squad of British national and international swimmers and found that the dancers scored higher than the swimmers in seven out of 10 areas of fitness.

In 2007, researchers at the Washington University in St Louis School of Medicine found the Argentine tango was better at improving the mobility of people with Parkinson’s disease than traditional exercise classes, while a Strathclyde University study revealed older women who took Scottish country dance classes were more agile, had stronger legs and could walk more briskly than those who swam, walked, played golf or attended fitness classes.

Dance has also been credited with relieving stress, anxiety and depression and improving social skills. “Dance is a best friend that never leaves, even when things are dark,” says Kellee Waters, a Brisbane psychologist who is also a qualified dance teacher and former competitive ballroom dancer. She took up dancing 20 years ago and says its effects have been life changing. “In the beginning it was about self-esteem, but it has been an outlet for stress, depression, grief and loss, and improved my confidence, body image, shape and fitness,” she says. “It’s even relieved financial stress when I was teaching and performing as a second — and sometimes third — job.”

Dance can even help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, according to a 2003 study led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the United States and published in the New England Journal of Medicine. It monitored the effects on 21 senior citizens of cognitive activities such as reading and doing crossword puzzles, as well as physical activities like swimming, cycling and dance. The only physical activity found to offer protection against dementia was frequent ballroom dancing. The study participants who danced often had a 76 per cent reduced risk of developing dementia, the greatest risk reduction of any activity studied, both cognitive and physical.

There are dance studios in every city and virtually every town in Australia and New Zealand, offering classes in all styles of dance to suit all skill levels, as well as countless DVDs for those who prefer to shake their tailfeathers in the privacy of their own home. Or you could simply play your favourite song and dance wherever you like. So what are you waiting for? Dance as though no one is watching.


One of the most popular styles of modern dance, jazz is a catch-all term for a broad range of dance styles. Originating in the United States, early jazz was inspired by traditional African American dances and also included tap.

In the 1950s it evolved on Broadway stages into the modern style often associated with musical theatre. Today, jazz is also heavily influenced by other styles, including contemporary and hip-hop. The late “King of Pop”, Michael Jackson, revolutionised jazz dance with his famous moonwalk, tip toes and spin moves.

“Dance is all about attitude. Adults tend to assume they’re going to be unco-ordinated and don’t want to embarrass themselves by joining a dance class, which is a shame because dance offers so many physical, mental and emotional health benefits,” says Emma Whitty, principal of Sydney’s Aussie Bodz Performing Arts.

“For adults reconnecting with dance, it will take a few lessons to brush up on old dance skills, restore your flexibility and get your head around the combinations but my advice is dust off those dance shoes, find a class and level you’re comfortable with and go for it.”

Jazz is one of the most accessible dance styles, with classes to suit all skill levels available in all Australian states, as well as throughout New Zealand and in many regional areas. Stage fright needn’t be an issue. Most dance studios offer adult classes for absolute beginners. “Inform the teacher that you are a first-timer at the beginning of the lesson,” Whitty advises. “If you are taking a beginner class you can expect the co-ordination and fitness requirements to be minimal.”

Unlike some other styles, the jazz dancer’s “kit” is minimal. While some experienced jazz dancers do wear jazz shoes, these are not usually required for beginners. Comfortable clothing — such as gym wear — a towel and a drink bottle are the only other requirements.

“There is no age barrier to dancing. I encourage all my students to have a lifelong relationship with dance,” says Whitty. “Over time, it may be appropriate to modify the dance moves or styles but dance is an activity that can and should be enjoyed by people of all ages.”


When Melbourne’s Michelle Newport turned 30 and found those excess kilos becoming harder to shift, she turned to her lifelong passion: dance. “I’ve been dancing since I was three and have always loved it. Growing up, I did the usual dance school trio: ballet, tap and jazz,” says Newport, now 36.

“After I hit 30 and started to struggle with my weight, a friend told me I should try Zumba. I went along thinking I was going to lose weight and got so much more.” Newport, like an estimated 12 million people in 125 countries, was instantly hooked on Zumba, the Latin-inspired dance-fitness program devised by Colombian aerobics instructor Alberto “Beto” Perez.

The result of a “happy accident” in the mid-1990s, Zumba originated when Perez forgot to bring his usual music to his aerobics class and was forced to improvise using the salsa and merengue tapes he had in his backpack. He took the concept to the US in 2001 and weekly Zumba classes are now taught by over 2000 teachers at more than 110,000 locations worldwide. Newport began her teacher training immediately after her first class; she recently had her first child and was still teaching four classes a week in the final weeks of her pregnancy.

“I love that you use your entire body during the class. You tone muscles that are neglected in other classes and your body changes to look longer and leaner,” she says.

While Zumba is suitable for absolute beginners and anyone prepared to “bring your sense of humour and leave your ego at the door”, Newport says a basic level of fitness and co-ordination make it easier to grasp the detailed choreography. Previous dance experience is not necessary, though.

Classes range from 45 minutes to an hour and are set to music specially created for Zumba by Grammy Award-winning producers. “There are a lot of different dance steps within a class, so not everyone will get it all first time. The routines are repeated, so over time you can master them,” she explains. She says her students have reported they feel less anxious and have improved focus and concentration after completing a Zumba class. “You can apply as much or as little energy to the moves as you want to,” Newport explains. “I always consider that we have all been successful if we’ve moved around, sweated a bit and had fun.”


When actress Natalie Portman accepted the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as a tortured ballerina in the dark film Black Swan in 2011, it was not only the latest in a long line of accolades for the movie but yet another sign that the gentle art of ballet is firmly back in favour.

Ballet classes have been a rite of passage for many young girls and boys virtually since it originated in the courts of the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century, but films including Centre Stage and Billy Elliot and television series such as So You Think You Can Dance have seen its popularity soar in recent decades.

“What I love about ballet is the refined and articulate manner in which the body moves, the lines and shapes the dancers create, and the aesthetics of turns, tutus and tiaras. It’s very beautiful,” says Kate Barber, principal of Sydney children’s dance school Big Steps Little Feet.

The physical benefits of ballet include improved posture and muscle strength, especially in the back, abdominals and pelvic floor, as well as increased flexibility, body awareness, co-ordination and expression. Barber says ballet also has meditative qualities. “Your focus shifts to concentrate on each step and placement of the legs, arms and head, relaxing your mind and removing all the cares of the world,” she says.

The good news for adults who haven’t seen a barre since childhood is that ballet is not hard to pick up again. However, Barber cautions against trying to do too much too quickly. “Usually, it’s the fitness, flexibility and muscle strength that reduce when you stop dancing, so, while it isn’t too hard to get back into as far as remembering the dialogue, structure of class, shapes required and feelings to convey, injuries can easily happen,” she explains.

“The prerequisites are mostly mental: knowing that the new skills are going to take a while to learn (and) having the commitment to keep going even when the improvement is minimal.”

Barber recommends researching local ballet studios to ensure you find a class and a teacher that suit your needs. “A tertiary degree in dance or professional dance experience with a reputable company is generally what you should be looking for in a teacher,” she advises. “Observe or trial the first class if you can to see how organised the teacher is and how she inspires the dancers and how clear and articulate her instructions are.”

A healthy dose of realism is also crucial. “A 30-year-old starting ballet for the first time isn’t going to end up in the Australian Ballet Company, so not taking yourself too seriously is another prerequisite,” Barber says.

Dancing for pleasure, you’re unlikely to graduate to the toe-crushing pointe shoes worn by professional ballerinas. Soft leather ballet shoes are de rigeur for beginners and casual dancers. If you can manage that, you can expect to enjoy ballet’s chief psychological benefit: the pure joy of movement. “The release of serotonin that comes with physical exercise, combined with an expression of self to music, allows you to focus on the joy of dance,” says Barber.


It’s testament to Australia’s love affair with ballroom dancing that the seventh highest-grossing Australian film is the 1992 classic, Strictly Ballroom. This tale of a champion young dancer determined to dance to the beat of his own drum carried a message that was wholeheartedly embraced by the Australian public: ballroom dancing — or DanceSport — is for everyone.

According to DanceSport Australia, the governing body for competitive ballroom dancing, there are two main international styles of DanceSport: standard and Latin. Standard dances are the Modern Waltz, Quickstep, Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz and Tango, while Latin dances are the Rumba, Cha Cha Cha, Samba, Jive and Paso Doble. Both styles are performed by couples.

The benefits of ballroom are myriad. As well as providing a whole-body workout, it helps to develop co-ordination and muscle tone, encourages good poise and posture, promotes confidence and self-assurance and often leads to the formation of lifelong friendships.

Kellee Waters discovered Latin dance as a 17-year-old, when a friend asked her to help demonstrate a dance for another friend’s debutante ball. “I picked it up easily and there was an excited feeling inside me,” she recalls. “I was an obese child and was unable to find any sport or activity that I liked as I had poor balance and no hand-eye co-ordination. I had finally found something I was good at and my self-confidence, efficacy, esteem and image positively changed.”

Now 37 and a qualified Latin dance teacher, Waters credits DanceSport not only with helping her to reach and maintain a healthy weight but with recovery from illness and stress release. She has competed at top level, even moving states to pursue a competitive dance career. “It’s helped me recover from several illnesses and injuries over the years, including autoimmune disease, a back injury, eating disorders and after a car accident,” she says.

“My passion and that excited, uplifted feeling have never left me. I’ve learned to get the most out of dancing so when I dance I’m fully connected to the experience rather than worrying about what other people think.” Waters recommends trying each style of DanceSport at least four times to determine which is right for you. “If you think a style is for you but you’re uncertain about the environment, try other places until you feel comfortable,” she advises. “The social aspect can be a major factor in making it right for you.”


When asked about the meaning of one of her dances, contemporary dance pioneer Isadora Duncan replied, “If I could tell you that, I wouldn’t have to dance it.” It’s a succinct summary of the philosophy of contemporary dance; the style is about self-expression rather than mastering set steps.

Emerging in the early 20th century as a backlash to the rigidity of ballet, contemporary dance focuses on ease of movement using the body’s natural alignment and energy, allowing a greater range and fluidity of movement than conventional dance techniques. It can be performed to almost any type of music, from classical pieces to pop songs.

“The boundaries in contemporary dance are non-existent, which makes it so interesting, challenging and enjoyable for both the dancer and the viewer,” says Kate Barber, who is passionate about the style. “I only discovered contemporary dance in my late teens and was most excited to have found such a free, creative and expressive form of dance. I’m definitely hooked.”

Contemporary dance draws on classical ballet, modern dance and even yoga and pilates. The emphasis on self-expression and personal interpretation means a contemporary dance class can be as gentle or as energetic as the dancer chooses, making it ideal for older people and those recovering from injuries. Most dance studios offer contemporary classes and no previous dance experience is necessary.

Barber says contemporary dance is perfect for people intimidated by the prospect of learning complex choreography. “A contemporary class as opposed to ballet would certainly be a recommendation as you can dance to your own physical limits and express yourself in other ways without having to do lots of plies, sautés or an adage,” she says.


Something different?

Bellydance: The Western name applied to traditional dances from the Middle East and North Africa, bellydance is something of a misnomer as the style utlises the entire body, but particularly the hips. Belly dance styles vary from country to country; the style most often seen and taught in the Western world is Raqs Sharqi, a solo improvised dance usually performed by women and occasionally by men.

Movements including hip drops, circles, figure eights and shimmies put the joints and ligaments in the lower back and hip through a full range of gentle, repetitive motion, improving flexibility and strengthening core muscles.

Bellydance is also known for its bright costumes. The bellydancer’s bedlah, a fitted, cropped top worn with a skirt or loose trousers and a belt fringed with coins or beads, has more in common with the “Arabian nights” vaudeville productions of the Victorian era than with authentic Middle Eastern dress.

Pole dance: Once the sole preserve of strip clubs, pole dancing is now firmly entrenched in the mainstream as a challenging full-body workout. With moves including climbs, spins and body inversions, the style requires significant strength, flexibility and endurance. It increases core and upper body strength by using the dancer’s own bodyweight as resistance.

While the erotic element is largely toned down in the fitness context, many women report that pole dancing boosts feelings of sensuality, self-esteem and body awareness.

An increasing number of men are also embracing the fitness benefits of pole dance. In 2007, China’s national pole dance competition was won by a man, 23-year-old dance instructor Zhang Peng, who beat a host of female dancers to the top prize.

Tap: Originating from both Irish step-dancing and the dances of African American slaves, modern tap dance was popularised by American vaudeville and Broadway performers. It’s a great cardiovascular workout and, because it is a high-impact weight-bearing activity, it can be useful in preventing osteoporosis.


Dance maths

Just how effective is dance at burning calories?

Bellydance: 315 calories/1323kJ

Ballroom: 329 calories/1382kJ

Tap: 336 calories/1411kJ

Ballet: 389 calories/1634kJ

Pole dancing: 250-400 calories/1050-1680kJ

Hip-hop: 509 calories/2138kJ

Zumba: 536 calories/2251kJ

NOTE: Numbers are based on a 60-minute workout



Laura Greaves is an award-winning freelance writer who specialises in health and wellbeing. Find out more at

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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