Have a Ball by Dancing Off the Pounds

Does your sweats-and-sneakers workout routine beg for a little…glamour? Take a break from the gym floor to glide onto the dance floor. Ballroom dancing is a fun and unique way to get in shape while learning some moves you can use when that holiday party rolls around. Think of it as losing weight gracefully.

The image of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire floating across a room is still iconic seven decades after they first graced a screen. And yet most of our own generation has never associated Ginger's perfect body with the healthy benefits of ballroom dancing. Even Marie Osmond has said that being on Dancing with the Stars has helped her drop 30 pounds and 5 inches off her waist. Jenni Garth and Laila Ali also joined the dancing weight-loss club. It turns out that fox-trotting, twirling and swinging to the beat can be legitimate ways to lose weight.

If the only times you've ever danced with a partner are at proms and weddings, you might need a little patience before the ballroom becomes your gym alternative. Beginner classes start off slowly: You can spend the entire first hour doing nothing but the basic step, first in front of the mirror and then with rotating partners, and the only sweat comes from your palms (or, unfortunately, your nervous partner's). But soon enough, once you learn a turn and a variation or two, you'll be moving continuously through entire songs. It's this uninterrupted movement that raises your heart rate while you're too busy thinking about the steps and having fun to notice. A 140-pound person can burn an average of 349 calories in an hour of fast social dancing and 191 calories in slower styles. Swing, salsa and quickstep are obvious fast choices. However, with the slower styles such as tango or traditional ballroom (waltz, cha-cha and foxtrot), it's easier to dance longer without stopping.

In addition to exercising your leg muscles, social dancing also works your core and upper body as you concentrate on maintaining proper posture—holding your arms strong and looking your partner in the eye, not looking at your feet. And all that spinning helps you develop a sense of balance you can't really get anywhere else.

"Physically, new dancers use muscles that they've never found before, because you use so much of your body when dancing," says Jeni Breen, the salsa and tango coordinator at Sandra Cameron Dance Center in New York City. "They develop coordination skills that they've never had before, because they've never had to use them."

Over the years, Breen has watched many people transform their bodies through dance, but it takes more than just classes to make that change happen. Many ballroom studios open their doors for students to gather without the teachers and apply what they've learned. "In the classes you learn the vocabulary," Breen explains, "and then the practice sessions—because you're doing it without stopping or slowing down—are where you'll lose weight very quickly. It's a language. Once you know the language you can have a long, extensive conversation."

And there are other benefits to learning the language: Dancers quickly make friends in class (shared embarrassment and excitement always brings people together). Plus, as you grow more comfortable with the steps, the movement becomes a satisfying form of expression. "A lot of people who have previously had no experience with a creative or artistic activity gradually discover their own artistic sensibility [in dancing]," Breen says. No, you don't need the sequined leotards, pounds of blush and a spotlight to get a kick out of dancing. But you can bring that new artistic self to a nightclub or another wedding, along with a slimmer body and a dress made for showing off your moves.

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