Appalachian State

Burn Calories, Tone Muscle and Work Your Heart By Dancing

February 05, 2014
Wednesday February 5, 2014, 10:06 AM

It would make sense to assume that Carole Steele of Cresskill started taking dance classes as an adult, inspired by her daughter who would one day become a junior member of the Tulsa Ballet.

But the truth is, it was the other way around.

“I went to dance class because she was in nursery school and she would always ask, ‘Where did you go, Mommy?'” recalled Steele, 54, whose daughter is now 19. “She was begging to go too.”

Steele has been taking ballet for almost 20 years and says dance is an integral part of her fitness routine. She also takes yoga and Zumba classes several times a week, but ballet has a special place in her heart.

“Ballet is a deep muscle workout, it’s extension and flexing of muscles,” said Steele, who believes that dancing has been instrumental in keeping a bad back in check, helps ward off neck pain, has made her more flexible and have better muscle tone, in addition to burning calories. “By the end of class you’re dripping in sweat,” said Steele.

Dance — ballet, tango, cha-cha, ballroom — is an old-fashioned but effective calorie-burning workout. A woman weighing 160 pounds dancing a fast ballroom number burns about 210 calories in 30 minutes, according to Appalachian State University researcher David Nieman. That same dancer would burn around 183 calories in a half-hour of ballet.

Not to mention it’s lots more fun than doing 15 push-ups or 30 crunches. In fact dancing has it all: It tones muscles, works the heart and improves flexibility. The fun is a bonus.

“There is an element of cardio, there is flexibility and strength, and there is muscle endurance,” said Josie Metal-Corbin, professor of dance at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who specializes in the nexus of dance, health and fitness. “It’s like cross training.”

And it’s good for your brain, too.

A 2011 study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found that a small group of elderly people who were taught the cha-cha, twice a week for six months showed an improvement in memory and cognitive function. A 2009 study on people with Parkinson’s disease found that those who took tango, waltz and foxtrot classes showed improvement in balance and movement. The theory is that those partner dances activate a region of the brain that can help improve motor control for people with Parkinson’s.

“There is a brain-body connection,” said Metal-Corbin. “You’re being challenged physically and mentally. Physically to do a routine and mentally to remember the combination, which involves memory and sequencing.”

For those who don’t want to just dance for their fat-burning regimen, some fitness classes incorporate ballet moves, such as Ballet Bod, a course taught by Paula Hegyi to adults at the kids’ dance studio Mariann’s School of Dance in Paramus.

“We warm up with barre work, and then we go to the floor and do work on mats for abs and arms,” said Hegyi, who has a background in dance. She uses all kinds of music from pop to classical during the one-hour class. Simple moves like a tondue (a stretching exercise) may not seem like a lot, but try holding your back in alignment, keeping your arms raised in a position, and moving your legs in a tightly controlled way for 5 or 10 minutes at a time. Hegyi can assure that it is indeed a workout.

Ballet instructor Leath Nunn, who teaches Steele, offers classes twice a week for adults at his studio, Nunnbetter Dance Theatre in Bergenfield. The classes spend 45 minutes at the barre and 45 minutes dancing in the center of the room.

Some might argue that they can’t dance. Nunn assures all that they can — at least — have a good time.

“I tell everyone to keep a sense of humor,” Nunn said. “Don’t look too closely in the mirror and to feel the beauty of dance from the inside. I often emphasize the youthful feeling dance can bring out. It is very playful, as long as no one takes themselves too seriously.”

Diana Daniel teaches dance classes at Anchor Dance Studio in Oradell, working adult students through lessons, both group and individually in ballroom, swing, foxtrot, cha-cha and more.

“Some people take lessons because they want to learn something new, some take them because they are bored with their fitness routine and want to jazz it up,” Daniel said.

Dancing is good not only for an aerobic workout but for isolating and exercising individual muscles, she said.

“The main moves in Latin dance is called ‘Cuban motion’ – the movement of your hips — but it’s also about moving your knees, bending, transferring weight from one leg to the other, which uses your leg muscles to move your hips,” Daniel said. “Then you add into that isolating your rib cage, which brings in your oblique muscles [along your sides and abdomen]. It’s almost like doing sit-ups, standing up.”

Jerry Devlin has been taking lessons from Daniel for 12 years. He sees it more as a hobby than exercise (he also plays tennis three days a week), but he says it certainly is a workout.

“If you dance six or seven fast songs in a row, you’ll get your pulse up,” said Devlin, 67, of Allendale. Today he goes dancing three or four times a week.

“When I’m dancing, I forget about my other world,” said Devlin, who works as an oral surgeon. “It gives me an hour or two of clear-headedness.”

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