The Best Ways To Dance Yourself Fit

Image1_335x447illustrated by gabriela alford.
Dance is a healthful artistic and physical pursuit. It’s a great way to engage the body, mind, and soul. But, did you ever find that walking into a dance studio with a floor-to-ceiling mirror instantly made you feel more self-critical than self-expressive? Never fear — it doesn't have to be that way. If you’re seeking the joy of movement without the agony of judgment, there’s a dance style out there for you.
We talked to some experts in movement styles who don’t care a whit about your leotard size or how high you can kick your leg, in the hopes that we might tempt you out onto the dance floor. Here's what we learned.

Dance for health and happiness: Biodanza
More than 40 years ago in Chile, Rolando Toro originated this type of playful group dancing. Called Biodanza, the practice is now starting to gain traction in the United States. Participants are encouraged to commit to regular attendance to build the sense of community. “There are many benefits to practicing Biodanza weekly,” says Michelle Dubreuil Macek, a student of Toro’s and director of Biodanza East Coast USA. She mentions reduced cortisol levels, regulated blood pressure, and an improved immune system. But, Macek says the rewards can be much greater: “Many say they sleep better, have better relationships with family/coworkers, and less anger outbursts. Life becomes more palpable and full of rich experiences as we sink into being fully present.”

Strange beauty: Butoh Dance
An avant-garde dance style that evolved in the cultural ferment of 1950s and '60s Japan may seem a bit formidable, but keep this in mind: “Butoh [pronouched BOO-toe] is accessible to everyone and anyone because it doesn’t require being flexible or graceful,” says Seattle-based artist Joan Laage. She adds, “Butoh is known to celebrate the beauty of aging and grotesquery, where the body can be twisted or contorted like an ancient tree.” Butoh classes can vary greatly depending on the teacher, but Laage says that all Butoh demands strong mental focus and the ability to detach oneself from everyday life, thoughts, and preoccupations.

Nourish the body: Mzima
Baba Chuck Davis, artistic director of the Durham, NC-based African American Dance Ensemble, is effusive as he describes Mzima, his recently developed dance and health program. “Flexibility, stamina, relaxation, strength, imagination, and creativity are all part of this phenomenal program,” he says. Drawing on the wisdom of the African diaspora, Mzima incorporates African rhythms, choreographic segments designed to work on different parts of the body at different times, and healthful discussions about nutrition. “We take pride in reaching your mind, soul, and spirit as we strengthen each aspect of your life,” says Davis.

Image2_335x447illustrated by gabriela alford.
Go with the flow: Continuum Movement
Teri Carter, a teacher of Continuum Movement in Los Angeles, describes her class as a place to experience a process rather than learn a technique. “In each class we learn a simple sequence of breaths, sounds, body movements, and awareness that explore our inherent fluidity, rather than patterned rigidity,” she says. Most of the movement happens low to the floor on a blanket, lying down, or sitting. “Each slow sequence loosens tensions that we hold, releasing and realigning our body, and relaxing our mind. The practice is as much of a self-care method as it is holistic fitness.”

Feel the beat: 5Rhythms
Developed by Gabrielle Roth in the 1970s, 5Rhythms is a movement meditation inspired by rhythms from Africa to South Asia and beyond. Exuberant classes allow for each person to find his or her own inner dancer. Jonathan Horan, a leader in the global 5Rhythms community, says, “Rather than having steps to follow, each rhythm is a different energy field in which you find your own expression and choreography, thereby stretching your imagination as well as your body."

Let go: Skinner Releasing
Joan Skinner originally created Skinner Releasing to help highly-trained dancers let go of unnecessary holding and tension in their bodies. Stephanie Skura, a respected choreographer and teacher of the Skinner technique, says that classes are “helpful for professional dancers as well as everyone else — all ages, all experiences.” In a Skinner class, everyone works at his or her own pace in response to the teacher’s spoken guided imagery, specially chosen music, and carefully timed silences. “Alignment — with oneself and the universe — is also an important piece of the practice, “ says Skura.

We hope at least one of those descriptions inspired you to get moving. Remember, if you’re hesitant to try something new, don’t be shy about asking if you can observe a class, or talk with the teacher or another student to get a deeper feel for the vibe before waltzing in. In any case, listen to your body. As the great choreographer Martha Graham said, “The body never lies.”

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