Dance Your Way to a Healthier You!
Some people can't help but start tapping their feet, when music is playing. Others notice their body swaying in time to elevator music. Are you one of those people? I happen to recall being in elementary school and seeing a long, grocery aisle as an opportunity to perfect my leaps! Much to my mother's chagrin, I eventually was given the job of "pushing the grocery cart" to avoid making a scene. All of these examples are our bodies' way of getting movement into our daily lives. Did it ever occur to you that maybe you needed to move or dance as an outlet to stay healthy? Did you ever consider how many ways all of us can incorporate dance into our routines to encourage a healthier lifestyle? According to the AARP website, there are four building blocks to your health and fitness: flexibility, strength, endurance, and balance. Dance utilizes all four of these elements.
“Be more flexible,” they say! Flexibility is key in working relationships and personal matters, but in dance, flexibility is necessary. Flexibility increases our range of motion and helps prevent injury. Just as a football player wouldn't be tossed into a game if he hasn't warmed his body up, a dancer wouldn't dare enter the performance space without a proper warm up. The warm up can be as short as fifteen minutes or as lengthy as an hour, but it's purpose remains the same---to prepare the body to dance by engaging the large muscle groups into activity with flexion and extension. I stress to my own dancers that the most important part of our dance class are the warm up exercises to prepare your body and mind. All of those exercises are designed to initiate movement from head to toe, and each exercise leading into the next one gradually helps that movement become bigger and bigger. In a ballet class, we start at the ballet barre with tendu, keeping your toe on the ground and extending your leg away from the body. Later, we move to grand battement, which is a long, brushing kick while standing at the ballet barre. Those exercises prepare the body for grand jeté, which is a leap across the floor. In the first exercise the leg extends only a tad, followed by the brush kicks, and finally reaching full stretch in a leap. Flexibility allows your body the freedom of expression, without being hindered by a limited movement range.
Strength training and dance don't sound like they go together. Many of us see a petite, lithe ballerina and don't picture her with dumbbells. What many people don't know is that in dance, we resist against our own weight. The movements look light and effortless, but the energy involved and attention to each placement of the arm, head, and leg against the force of gravity weigh in at a hefty amount. For a dancer to hold her body in “ballet first position”, she presses down through her feet, at the same time lifting up through her head and spine. Her turnout muscles engage in her hip joint and spiral down her legs. Her stomach muscles are pulled upward and into her spine, while she's holding her arms out at her sides and feeling them from deep behind her shoulders in her back. All of this is just a fraction of what's going on in her head while she is “simply” standing still. We've all heard in news reports that strength training builds muscle, and muscle burns fat. Dancers may not use machinery or weights on stage, but their muscles are strong and their bodies are lean.
Immediately when I think of endurance, I think of Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France bike challenge. Pedaling continuously for so many days under warm conditions and keeping hydrated is enough to make you happy, you can watch it from your couch. Endurance and repetition go hand and hand. Have you ever seen a dancer do just one jump or one turn? NO! When you repeat that jump combination for the fourth time and still don't have it exactly right, you find yourself checking your pulse and monitoring your heart rate; however, after you've been dancing continuously for a few months, you find that same combination four tries later not to be as strenuous on your heart. Over the course of those months, your lung capacity has increased by proper breathing techniques that coincide with each movement and your endurance capacity is also on the rise. Dance is very physical and the well-trained dancer builds her endurance in rehearsals to combat the extra nerves and adrenaline rush for opening night.
Lastly, balance is more than being able to stand on your tiptoes. Dancing increases your well being by building confidence with each correct step and offering a social outlet too. The structured environment of a dance class builds self-discipline by; preparing you to always be on time, wearing the proper attire, learning how to follow oral and visual directions, and showing respect for your instructor and partner. Consider the calming effect of the yoga “om”. The vibration in your mouth and your concentration on the sound you are making quiets everything around you to focus on just your body. Many yoga poses and movement phrases require you to stand on one leg or hold a position for quite awhile. Not just yoga but all forms of dance can add more balance to your lifestyle habits.
When you stop to consider how integral flexibility, strength, endurance, and balance are to any lifestyle, contemplate how dancing can offer all four of those key components to your being. For you, maybe it's just turning on your favorite cd and letting your body guide you for each step? Maybe your favorite show is “Dancing With the Stars” and you want to try ballroom dancing? Perhaps, your cultural background has dances and traditions that peak your interest? It doesn't matter what you choose, but choose to improve your lifestyle by adding dance to your schedule. And, if you happen to be at the grocery store waiting in line at the deli, join me in an impromptu tap dance, and I promise I'll stay out of the long aisles and leave my leaping at the dance studio.
By Alison Moss Read More