I distinctly recall my first middle school dance. It was 1989 and hits by New Kids on the Block (NKOTB), Debbie Gibson and Vanilla Ice were the songs ‘du jour’. My girlfriends and I belted out the lyrics to their songs as we danced together on the cafeteria floor in our Jordache high-waisted acid wash jeans, Reebok high top sneakers, and L.A. Gear oversized, cropped neon tops.
As we tried to mimic the dance moves we saw on the music videos, our heads – framed by big bangs and permed hair held back by banana clips or hair scrunchies – would bop up and down to the beat of the music. We did not stop until the end of the night when we would hear the opening chords of “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin.
At this point, we would race over to a corner of the cafeteria and anxiously eye the boys who would be assembled on the opposite end of the room. One by one we would pair off and the next eight minutes and two seconds would be spent swaying awkwardly side by side in what was inevitably the longest slow dance ever.
In college, the music may have changed – NKOTB being replaced by an eclectic mix of everything from Jimmy Buffet to Madonna – but my obsession with dancing did not. From 1994 to 1998, I regularly wore out my shoes dancing in dorm rooms, dive bars, fraternity basements in sleepy Buckhannon, West Virginia, and nightclubs further afield in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. If recreational dancing had been an elective, I would have aced it.
My enthusiasm for dancing only intensified post-college from 1998 to 2004 during the six years I lived in Boston, Massachusetts. This time period represented the height of the ‘clubbing scene’ and my introduction to house music. In addition to working a full-time day job, I was fortunate enough to fulfill my ultimate dance fantasy.
After being spotted dancing on a night out with friends, I was asked to audition for a coveted position as a ‘go-go’ dancer for the largest nightclub in the city. My debut was a success and for the next couple of years, I was paid to move and shake my body three nights per week on stage alongside some of the world’s most renowned DJs.
Despite the long hours and late nights, my body was in peak physical condition. Circa 2000, the U.S Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) recommended that adults 18 years of age and older engage in 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a few days per week. I was exceeding this target substantially.
On the three evenings, I worked each week, I was dancing for a minimum of 90 minutes in towering heels atop a 6-foot-high platform. Moreover, I was dancing at a vigorous pace to match the tempo of house music, which typically ranges from 115 to 130 BPM.
It is worth noting that the hours I clocked dancing were more on par with current HHS guidelines. The most recent HHS physical activity guide, which was published in 2018, recommends that adults take part in either 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity; or 75 minutes to 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity.
So if you want to get your blood pumping and oxygen flowing, dust off those dance shoes and head to your nearest dance floor!
Aside from the obvious cardiovascular benefits including a healthy heart and happy lungs, by dancing regularly, I was also able to maintain a healthy weight by doing something I loved. The ‘freshman fifteen’ that had stuck to my hips my entire college career was firmly relegated to the past.
Moreover, I gained a definition in my lower body muscles that I had never previously achieved by lifting weights. Although my feet were not particularly appreciative of the high heels I routinely danced in, my calves were reaping the benefits. I also now had thighs and buns of steel thanks to all of the rhythmic lunging, squatting, and lifting. Take that Jane Fonda!
As my physical confidence grew, I also noticed an improvement in my agility and overall coordination. As my body became accustomed to the repetitive movements, my joints loosened and I was able to move more fluidly.
As I mentioned earlier, my dancing took place in a raised column. These platforms typically were built to hold one dancer so the surface area never usually exceeded 4×4 feet. Navigating this small area while on 4-6 inch heels meant I had to become one with my column or risk falling off into the crowd below!
Now I realize most people who take up dancing are more likely to be moving across a traditional ground-level dancefloor. That being said, the overall effects are the same, regardless of the environment. When you dance you are forced to be aware, not only of your own space, but the space of dancers moving around you.
Studies cited by Harvard Medical School Blavatnik Institute of Neurobiology indicate that dancing also positively influences the central nervous system in the brain. The act of synchronizing movement to music stimulates the areas of the brain responsible for voluntary movement, hand-eye coordination and fine and gross motor control.
All of these factors cause the central nervous system to develop more control over the large muscle groups that are utilized during a dance routine. The more practice the brain and the body gets, the more refined and controlled movements become. Thus, as the weeks turned into months, my balance improved in conjunction with my spatial awareness.
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) lists dancing as one of the four main exercises that can increase a person’s endurance or “staying power”
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) lists dancing as one of the four main exercises that can increase a person’s endurance or “staying power”. The first few evenings I danced, I recall going home and collapsing into bed. The vigorous activity left me feeling wiped out and out of breath. I would actually take power naps in the early evenings in between returning home from my day job and leaving for the dance club.
However, as my body became accustomed to the two 45-minute dance sets, my stamina improved drastically. I could return home, skip the siesta and head straight to the dance floor. On occasions I even had enough energy left in the tank at the end of the night to take the dance party back to my apartment!
I noticed the positive effects in other areas of my life as well. Although I was not a member of a gym at this point in my life, I did enjoy running in my free time. With increased endurance, I was able to increase the lengths of my runs from 5K to 10K. I also began to forgo public transportation in favor of walking.
However, as my body became accustomed to the two 45-minute dance sets, my stamina improved drastically.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, dancing – along with other high impact and weight-bearing exercises – also strengthens bones and reduces the likelihood of osteoporosis in later life. According to WebMD, the stress placed upon bones in the above exercises causes tiny fractures. The affected bone then regenerates, repairing the microscopic cracks and growing new bone on top of the damaged area.
According to the Office on Women’s Health nearly 10 million Americans currently suffer from a diagnosis of osteoporosis. Of those 10 million people, 8 million are women. Women are disproportionately affected because their bones are typically thinner and less dense than men’s to begin with. Menopause accelerates bone loss so it is especially important to get ahead of the curve before you hit this stage in life.
While I did not truly appreciate the importance of this benefit in my 20’s, I am thankful for it now that I am in my mid-40’s. While my joints may creak and squeak a little more than usual, my bones remain healthy and my height has remained a consistent 5’7 ½ inches.
So what are you waiting for? Heed the advice of medical professionals and hit the dance floor. Your bones will thank you later!
Aside from the obvious physical benefits, dancing also positively influences a person’s mental and emotional health. Regular participation in a moderate to high-intensity exercise like dancing can result in significant changes in a person’s physical appearance, health, and abilities. Positive physical changes in turn alter an individual’s mental and emotional health.
My own body underwent a metamorphosis during my stints at the nightclub and then again years later, post-pregnancy when I took Zumba classes. In both instances, as I became more fit and cognizant of my abilities, my self-confidence grew exponentially. At one point, I even considered training to become a Zumba instructor.
Several studies have also indicated that dancing boosts a person’s cognitive performance by challenging the brain. This is largely because dancing requires a significant amount of multitasking for the body and mind to operate in unison.
In ballroom dancing, Salsa, and Zumba for instance, a dancer needs to learn a specific pattern of choreographed moves either on their own or with a partner. These moves require arms and legs to move in unison while the dancer navigates in and around a space that includes other dancers.
While I have never taken ballroom dancing lessons, I have taken Salsa classes and regularly attended Zumba for a couple of years in my late 30s. I still remember the disconnect between my brain and my body the first few times I attended Zumba.
My body could not keep up with the music’s tempo and it was as if I had lost my entire sense of direction. The instructor would indicate moving left and my body would move right or vice versa. As I became a regular fixture in the class, however, my mind and body became synchronized.
Along with the physical and cognitive benefits, dancing also reaps significant emotional benefits since it is a social activity. Whether I was dancing for work or for pleasure, I would regularly see the same faces week after week. Emboldened by the combination of dancing and music, I found it much easier to strike up a conversation with these individuals than I would in other situations.
In addition to being a social activity, dancing is also inclusive. At the nightclub, I had a bird’s eye view of the entire dancefloor. Regardless of the DJ or music, there was always a diverse group of bodies undulating across the dancefloor.
This holds true for the Salsa and Zumba classes I have attended over the years. Participants in these classes have included women and men of all ages, shapes, and sizes, and levels of experience and fitness. Despite our varied outside appearances, we were all unified in one thing – our mutual love of dancing and music!
Whether you are the loudest extrovert or the most subdued introvert – I fall somewhere in the middle – head to the dance floor if you are looking to expand your social circle.
Dancing can also enhance your mood. According to WebMD, regular exercise, including dancing, releases endorphins into the bloodstream. These so-called feel-good hormones will often leave an individual feeling energized. I always found that if I was having a bad day, dancing would dramatically improve my mood and leave me feeling as if I could take on the world.
Whether dancing comes naturally for you or you have two left feet, consider giving it a whirl. Pulsating lights and deafening music in nightclubs, not your thing? Not sure whether you want to commit to the cost of structured classes or lessons?
Not to fear! You can dance from the comfort of your own living room! There is nothing better than a little impromptu dance party in the living room on a Friday night – even my children are a fan.
Not only is it fun and free, but you do not need to dress up. You can even do it in your bare feet. Better yet, when you are all tapped out, you can collapse straight into bed to recharge those batteries!