Oh body swayed to music, oh brightening glance.
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
William Butler Yeats, “Among School Children”
Looking for the perfect exercise? You may want to add a pair of dancing shoes to your collection of athletic gear. In his new book, UltraLongevity: the Seven-Step Program for a Younger, Healthier You, Canyon Ranch Medical Director Mark Liponis, M.D., entitles his chapter on exercise and movement simply, “Dance.” Dr. Liponis explains that he’s defining dance broadly as rhythmic movement, in part to get the attention of people who think of physical activity as a grim business involving dumbbells and suffering.
But he goes on to show that rhythmic movement is in fact the most beneficial kind: One study, for example, found that swimmers and rowers – both of whom practice a profoundly rhythmic form of exercise – had healthier immune systems than equally fit athletes, such as soccer players, whose sports are less informed by rhythm. Scientists have several theories about why this should be – one is that movement plus rhythm tends to create an anxiety-reducing meditative state. (Think of a baby being rocked, or a small child self-comforting by sitting and rocking himself.) As Dr. Liponis points out, it stands to reason. Our bodies and our lives are ordered by rhythms great and small, so rhythm both feels great and does us good.
What the body wants
With the addition of music, rhythmic movement becomes dance, one of the most widely enjoyed forms of movement known to man.
“The body is made to move, and it loves to move to music,” says Christina Lopez, fitness manager at Canyon Ranch in Tucson and creator of the Ranch’s wildly popular event, Gotta Dance!
Lopez, who’s been studying dance since age 4 and teaching it since she was 13, should know. She’s brought her infectious, high-spirited love of dance to thousands of classes over the years. Like Liponis, she’s not strict about defining dance.
“You see kids out running around, playing, and they’re dancing all the time, just feeling the joy of movement,” she says. “It’s wonderful in, say, a World Beat class, where we have live drumming, to watch people let go and feel that again.”
“Dancing makes people happy. The body naturally wants to move to the beat, and when you allow your body to lose itself in movement, it’s such a joyful, renewing thing.”
Not surprisingly, dance classes are among the Ranch’s most popular offerings, and they range from Belly Dance to Funk Aerobics, with inventive new classes emerging by popular demand. Dance at the Ranch has moved into the water, for example, with Aqua Boogie and Fluid Flexibility – both of which are done to ever-changing themed soundtracks – and into the realm of mind and spirit with Spirit Dance, which combines elements of Eastern marital arts practice, yoga and other body-mind practices. Also new and moving to the beat: Rhythmic Stretch, in which the process of stretching goes beyond a series of static holds and becomes a fluid, rhythmic process.
Lopez even dances on the stationary bike.
“Indoor Cycling? I’m dancing to the music. The sheer pleasure of moving to music is the single biggest reason group fitness classes are so popular,” she says. “Life is just better with a soundtrack.”
Dance to your favorite beat
Even if you haven’t danced since your high school prom, moving to the music may be in your future. Dance is an enjoyable, endlessly varied form of physical activity with strong mind-body and social components; if you like it, you’re likely to stick with it.
Here are some ways Dr. Liponis suggests for getting started:
- Take a ballroom dancing class with a partner. This is low-impact, indoor exercise that develops balance, agility and mind-body coordination. And who doesn’t want to feel like Fred Astaire?
- Study beginning tap or belly dance, or sign up for a jazz class. As Dr. Liponis points out, if you register for a class, you have a regular appointment with fitness.
- Make a commitment to learn a strenuous dance form. There are impassioned folk and contra dance groups in nearly every community that hold regular events and welcome new members; country swing, tango and salsa are going strong in clubs in every city. Most give lessons to beginners. You can find them online or in your newspaper’s events section.
Become a social dancer, take classes, dance around your living room, dance with your kids – just dance! It’s a gift for your body and spirit, and it’s a whole lot of fun.