By Sheila A. Ward, PhD, MPH
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson tapping his way up and down the stairs. Ginger Rogers gliding across the big screen in high heels. Gene Kelly singing and swinging in the rain. These may be some of the first images that come to mind when you think of dancing. Perhaps you’ve never pictured yourself as a dancer, but the fact is that you don’t have to have Bill’s fancy footwork, Ginger’s grace, or Gene’s rhythm to have a whole lot of fun and enjoy the very real health benefits of dancing.
As someone with diabetes, you’re most likely aware of the many plusses of physical activity, such as increased insulin sensitivity, a stronger heart, and improved cholesterol levels. Even the brain appears to be positively affected by exercise: At any age, exercise acts as a mood booster, and physically active seniors have been shown in research studies to perform better on mental tasks and to have a decreased risk of Alzheimer disease.
But the benefits of dancing don’t end there. For one thing, dancing is a weight-bearing activity (in which the body works against gravity), which means it helps strengthen the bones. Dancing may also help to strengthen abdominal and thigh muscles and improve balance, posture, and coordination. This may, in turn, reduce the risk of falling. Additionally, stretching, which is a part of some dance classes, can enhance the range of motion in some joints.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of dance, however, is that it’s fun. Dancing often offers the opportunity for socializing and making friends, it’s accompanied by music (also a mood booster), and it gives you the chance to feel like a star sashaying your way across the floor.
There are numerous ways to participate in dance. You can take dance classes, attend social dances, and, in some communities, join a dance troupe, company, or club that practices and performs together.
There are many different forms of dance, and most styles will have a beginner-level class that introduces the basic moves and techniques of the style. However, the basic ingredients of a dance class will differ depending on the style of dance you choose. For instance, lessons in folk dancing and social dancing may consist of just a short warm-up followed by learning a few steps or a combination of steps. Lessons in performance-style dances such as jazz dance, ballet, and modern dance, on the other hand, may include a warm-up, an across-the-floor (a series of traveling steps that go from one end of the dance floor to the other), a combination (a short series of dance moves or steps, which may grow into a larger routine over the course of the dance sessions), and a cooldown.
In either case, the warm-up is meant to prepare the body for physical activity by gradually increasing blood flow to the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that will be used for the class. It may include a series of stretches and flexibility exercises or a short review of previously taught steps. The cooldown, which typically uses gentle movements and stretches similar to those of the warm-up, is designed to safely return the body to its resting state and reduce muscle cramping and soreness.
Different dances feature different types of movement and use different types of music. You may have to try a few styles to find one that suits you. Or you may find you enjoy many styles of dance. Here are just a few of the options:
African. African dance is distinguished by rhythmic body movements, the use of all parts of the body (not just the arms and legs), and a somewhat forward-bending posture, rather than the upright posture of, say, a ballet dancer. Most African dance steps are performed with the feet and knees facing forward, rather than being angled outward, as in some other dance styles. Percussion often dominates the music for African dance, and dance studios sometimes hire drummers to accompany classes and rehearsals.
Ballet. Although contemporary styles of ballet may borrow elements from other types of dance, traditional ballet is characterized by an erect body position, precise movements, and use of classical music. For most steps, the legs are rotated outward at the hips, causing the knees and feet to turn outward. In ballet classes, at least some of the exercises are done while holding onto the ballet bar. This can be a good way to increase strength safely for people with balance problems.
Ballroom. Ballroom dance originated in European court dances, but today it reflects African-American and Latin-American influences, as well. Styles of ballroom dance include waltz, foxtrot, tango, cha-cha, swing, and others. With very few exceptions, all of these are danced with a partner. At the beginner level, ballroom dance may not offer much of an aerobic workout, but when the steps and styling of a dance are mastered, any one of them can be quite vigorous.
Belly. Belly dancing originated in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. True to its name, one of the main areas of focus of this dance style is the stomach, but other body parts, such as the hips, back, and arms, are also used. This dance is sometimes accompanied by the playing of zills, or finger cymbals worn by the dancer.
Hip-hop. Hip-hop dance is one of the main elements of hip-hop culture, which originated in New York City in the 1970’s. Various styles of dance, including hip-hop dancing and break dancing, are done to hip-hop music. While certain forms of hip-hop dancing can include acrobatic moves such as cartwheels and headspins (spinning while balanced on the head), basic hip-hop dance moves can be performed even by beginning dancers.
Line. Line dancing is often done to country music, but there are also swing-style dances and folk dances that are done in line formations rather than with a partner. Dancers may be arranged in straight lines or other patterns, and, typically, all the dancers do the same moves or steps at the same time.
Modern. Modern dance was developed as a response to (or rebellion against) the rigid rules of ballet, such as the use of turned-out hips as a primary position. However, modern dance is not without its own rules. The various pioneers of modern dance established their own sets of skills, techniques, and principles of movement for their style of dance. What is taught in a beginning modern dance class, then, will depend largely on the training and focus of the instructor. In some cases, improvisation will be an important part of the class.
Square. Square dancing has its roots in the dances of New England settlers and immigrants. In this type of social dance, each person takes a partner, and groups of four couples face one another to form a square. When the music starts, a caller calls out the steps for the dancers to perform.
Sword. Sword dancing, a ceremonial type of dance found in many cultures, typically involves the use of an unsharpened dance sword or similar object to depict fights or rituals.
Tap. Tap dancing is derived from various influences, including African and Irish dance. It involves creating rhythms with shoes that are specially outfitted with taps, or thin metal plates, affixed to the heel and toe areas.
The type of shoes you wear for dancing will depend on the type of dance you decide to pursue — shoes for ballroom dancing, for instance, often have high heels (at least for women) to keep the center of gravity forward, while shoes for hip-hop dancing are generally flat-soled sneakers. In spite of these differences, there are some general rules that can be used for choosing a suitable pair of dancing shoes. First, make sure the shoes don’t pinch your toes — but also make sure that there’s not so much room in the front of the shoe that your foot slides from side to side. The heel should be snug enough to prevent your heel from slipping out when you move. Leather shoes will conform to the foot better than shoes made from synthetic materials and will allow some sweat to evaporate, keeping the foot drier. When purchasing shoes (and periodically thereafter), feel inside for torn lining, lumpy insoles, prominent seams, or any other features that may irritate the feet. Shoes with these characteristics should not be purchased (or should be thrown away if they are your current shoes).
Before wearing your shoes to a dance class for the first time, wear them at home for at least brief periods while you go about household chores. This can help you determine if the fit is comfortable and if there are any troublesome seams, buckles, or similar sources of irritation. You can also try out different socks to see which are most comfortable. Don’t try to make dance shoes last longer than they were meant to — older shoes may develop pressure points that can irritate the skin.
For dance styles that are typically performed barefoot, such as modern and African dance, wearing a flexible, breathable shoe or footings that conform to the soles of the feet are good options for protecting the feet. Footings are available at dance stores and some orthopedic shoe stores. If other students in the class are going barefoot, however, be sure to wear shoes or footings that you only wear indoors.
Socks worn inside dancing shoes provide extra cushioning and can prevent the friction that causes blisters. Socks made of cotton or wool blended with a wicking material that draws moisture away from the skin are your best bet for keeping feet dry and comfortable.
Be sure to inspect your feet after dancing for any signs of rubbing or pressure. If a callus or corn has developed, ask your doctor or podiatrist how to deal with it. Do not try to remove it with an over-the-counter liquid callus remover. Such products contain acid that can damage the skin.
People with diabetes are advised to clear their exercise plans with their doctor before beginning a formal or vigorous routine, and dancing is no exception. Once you have your doctor’s OK to dance, here are some other smart moves:
• If you’re taking a class, let your dance instructor know that you have diabetes and that there’s a chance you may need to take short breaks during classes to check your blood glucose or have a snack. If there’s a possibility that you may develop hypoglycemia (low blood glucose) during class, let your instructor know what your typical signs and symptoms are and what you do to treat it.
• Bring a water bottle with you to class so that you can stay hydrated while dancing.
• Wear medical jewelry that identifies you as a person with diabetes. This can help to ensure that you receive the appropriate treatment more quickly in the event of a medical emergency.
The same general precautions apply when attending a social dance: wear medical ID, and bring your meter, glucose tablets or snacks to raise your blood glucose if necessary, and a bottle of water.
Most communities have at least some opportunities to take dance lessons or attend social dances. To start locating them, try looking in the phone book or online for a local dance studio. Many colleges, YMCAs, universities, and community centers also offer dance classes. Fitness centers and municipal parks and recreation facilities are other possibilities. Another way to locate lessons, dances, or organized dance groups is to type the style of dance you are looking for into an Internet search engine such as Google or a website such as www.meetup.com. (Click here to learn more about dancing in a chair or wheelchair if you have limited mobility, balance concerns, or other special considerations.)
If you’re not sure you want to sign up for several weeks of classes, ask if you can observe a class or pay to take a sample class. Social dances often provide a short, free lesson covering the basic steps of the style before the dancing starts. This is another good way to try new types of dance before committing to a series of lessons.
If you think you might like to learn to dance, don’t let the fear of having two left feet hold you back. Find a beginner-level class, and check it out. Chances are, your classmates will be people very much like you — a little nervous, but eager to learn. Give yourself time to get over the initial awkwardness that comes with trying something new. With practice and patience, you, too, can learn to dance.
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