Yes, it's fun, but the mind-body benefits of dance translate into greater fitness gains too.
Photo: Patrik Giardino / Getty Images
Dancing is fun—there's no debate about that. That's probably why more adults are turning to ballet, jazz, and tap for a fun workout. But as it turns out, dance can also make you a better athlete overall.
Take Alberto Ortiz, founder of Work Train Fight, who's an accomplished boxer *and* salsa dancer. He says that dancing helped him become a better boxer, which might sound strange, but it makes a lot of sense: "Salsa teaches you to read your partner's body language and makes you more aware of your own body, which translates to the way you analyze and approach your opponent in boxing," he says.
He's not the only one who reaps benefits from his commitment to dance. "Dancing has made it a lot easier for me to pick up tennis and skiing," says Katia Pryce, founder and creator of DanceBody. "My balance and lower-body strength are insanely good because of dancing, which is important in skiing." As for tennis: "I'm so aerobically conditioned in terms of lateral movement that getting to the ball is the easy part.... The hard part is hitting it correctly!"
Dance experts say you can reap similar benefits even if you're not a pro. Here's how even the occasional dance class can make you a better athlete.
The Physical Perks
Stronger feet: "Across the board, dancing helps make your feet stronger," Ortiz says. "Our feet are the foundation of pretty much all of our movement." Regardless of your sport of choice, having strong feet—that you can balance on—is an asset.
Better endurance: "From a cardiovascular standpoint, dance is superior because of the high aerobic component," Pryce explains. Plus, for some people, it may be easier to work harder for longer while dancing. "When you're dancing, your mind is distracted and you're enjoying the movement; you're not thinking about how fast your heart is beating, whereas on a treadmill you're likely counting down minutes." Pryce isn't the only dancer who has noticed this. "When I'm consistently dancing, my endurance steps way up," says Lauren Boyd, cofounder of Dance Fit Flow. "In a dance class, I forget that I'm working out for an hour or more, but that consistent cardio really makes a difference over time."
Flexibility: You probably could have guessed this one, but it's important. "The degree of flexibility will vary based on dance styles. However, you can't deny that dance has flexibility benefits," Ortiz says. "Whether it's doing a high kick, a dip, or upper-body movements that challenge your everyday posture, flexibility is a must, because no one likes a stiff dancer." Pryce also says she notices that her flexibility earned from dancing helps her out in other types of fitness classes. "I love to hit up a yoga class to feel a long-held stretch and length in my body—a great synergistic counterpart to dance! I go very infrequently, but every time I go, the teacher thinks I'm a yogi because of my hyperflexibility." (Not sure if you need to improve in this area? Take our flexibility test to find out.)
Bodily awareness and coordination: Dance strengthens your mind-body connection. "Learning how to isolate certain parts of your body and understanding your center of gravity are two huge benefits that translate into your athletic performance," Ortiz says. Boyd agrees, noting that "there are big, intricate movements in dance, and your brain is processing those and helping you execute them. You're aware of where you want your body to go, and how you want it to move. Over time, you find yourself thinking less and just getting after it! Catching on to activities or workouts with patterns, rhythm, or beats will come a bit easier for dancers." Think: Killing it in spin class.
How Dance Helps You Get Your Head In the Game
Confidence: "I've met people who declared they'd 'never dance,' but then gave it a shot, and now they're hooked," says Pryce. Confidence plays a role not only in feeling good about yourself and your body, but also your willingness to try new things or pursue physical goals—like finally hitting that PR you've been after.
Social connection: "Expect to meet and connect with the people around you," Pryce says. "Dancing is a communal sport. Our ancestors did it as a way to bond and celebrate, so we are hardwired to want connection through this type of movement." When you think about it that way, it's pretty tough to not want to at least try it out. "Like attracts like, and the people coming to these classes crave connection and companionship, not just a solo treadmill experience." Fit friends are likely to keep you coming back for more, so don't discount the power of the new gym buddies you might find through dance.
Awareness of your surroundings: "In the boxing ring, I'm always preaching the importance of knowing where you are—if you know moving to your left will make you run into the corner and get stuck, then move to your right instead," Ortiz says. "In salsa, even though you're super focused on your partner, you also need to make sure you are aware of your space; running into a bar or other dancers never feels good." The ability to read your surroundings quickly can benefit you in pretty much any sport, from running to cycling and even weightlifting in a crowded gym.
Where to Start
Okay, so you're ready to give dance a try. But what kind? Experts say the type of dance you go for doesn't matter as much as you might think, but here are some suggestions based on where you are in your fitness journey and what you're looking to get out of it.
If you're already an athlete: Dance Cardio
"I think for people just learning to find their 'tiny dancer' inside as an adult, dance cardio is truly where it's at," Pryce says. "It's zero pressure; you just keep moving! It's dance blended with fitness, so there will always be parts that you can pick up right away (burpees, planks, lunges, etc.) and feel good about."
If the mental benefits are most appealing to you: Salsa
"In salsa, you have a three-way connection: yourself, your partner, and the music," Ortiz says. "You need to control your body while making sure it's in tune with the music and reacting to your partner. Talk about multitasking." Plus, salsa music is a mood booster. "Have you ever heard salsa come on, and the next thing that happened was that you got depressed?" Ortiz asks. Probs not.
If you're invested in dancing more: Ballet
"Ballet is known throughout dance as being the building block of dance technique," says Kerri Pomerenke, cofounder of Dance Fit Flow. "Just be sure to find a class that suits your experience level."
No matter which style you choose, expect dance to be an athletic challenge you can meet head-on, even if you're already pretty fit. "Athletes usually get more frustrated than the average person, because they hold themselves to higher expectations to get the movements right," Ortiz says. "However, one of the biggest lessons in dancing is: CALM THE F*CK down, relax, and have some fun. There is no winning, just positive exchanges of energy."