I’ve never been excellent at dancing, but for some reason I’ve always felt drawn to it. In elementary school, I would make up mini dance routines and perform them for myself in my bedroom mirror. In middle school, in an attempt to gain some semblance of rhythm, I questioned my dance-adept cheerleader friend to teach me how to body roll. During college, I would beg my friends to go out with me—yes, drinking would be involved, but mainly, I just wanted to dance the night away.
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Now, at 23 and with a full-time job, spending late nights dancing at a club isn’t always doable. But I’ve learned something else that’s kept my passion for the dance floor alive: dance fitness classes.
It started with Zumba, which I learned during a summer internship. I remember hitting the studio after work and being surrounded by all types of women—young, ancient, thin, thick—but still feeling self-conscious. I’d never danced in a space that wasn’t secluded or where the lights were in full effect, where everyone could see me and my flailing body.
Still, when the music started, I followed the instructors as best as I could—which, for the record, wasn’t very well. The music was upbeat and so were the teachers and students, and even though I missed so many beats, I felt more pleased after that class than I had all summer. By then, I didn’t care if I messed up and the entire class saw my misstep because the joy the movements brought me was so much greater than any feelings of embarrassment or reservation.
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While I’ve always been drawn to these workouts and how positive they make me feel, I could never know why I walked out of the studio or gym feeling so radiant. So I reached out to exercise physiologist Tom Holland, who had a more scientific understanding of the allure of dancing. “The full-body movement and neuromuscular connection is so unique,” he told me. “You don’t get that from CrossFit or strength training, where the movements are static.”
Dancing can also build self-esteem. “You add in music that is fun and you’re learning and you go, ‘Wow I can do this!’ when you get it right,” says Holland. “It’s not super complicated but complicated enough to feel rewarding.” It’s right: My first couple of Zumba classes felt awkward at best. But as time went by, I started to nail certain movements, and it felt so much more empowering than setting a personal record in the weight room. It’s hard to compare the mind-body connection of a high-powered dance class with any other workout out there.
I’ll never forget the recent Monday night hip-hop dance class I took with my similarly dance-challenged friend Nora. We felt like fish out of water, surrounded by some incredible dancers. But the instructor was kind and enthusiastic, breaking down the moves and trying his best to teach us how to Milly Rock (emphasis on trying).
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When our 60-minute class was over, Nora and I were dripping with sweat and out of breath. Our instructor wrapped things up by thanking us for coming out and left us with this: “Dance is always there for you. If you have a excellent day, you want to come dance to celebrate. If you have a terrible day, you want to dance to forget about it and go forward.”
That’s why I’ll keep taking dance classes, even though I’m so horrible sometimes, I stumble over my own feet. Dance can ground you in your own experiences, but it can also inspire you to take the next steps in life and live more joyfully—and you don’t have to be a well-known choreographer or ballerina to feel that effect.