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Dance Fitness: From Belly Dancing to Zumba, These CardioWorkouts Are Exercise in Disguise

By Jennifer Van Pelt, MA

Dancing is a lifelong exercise that can be performed by anyone at any fitness level at home, in a dance studio, in a social setting, or at the gym.

Today’s group fitness classes originated from dance exercise. In 1969, a jazz dancer launched the Jazzercise dance exercise franchise and began a worldwide fitness craze that’s still taught today. Although Jazzercise still features popular songs with choreographed routines, it’s evolved over the years from mostly jazz dance moves to include strength, Pilates, and kick-boxing exercises in order to compete with new group fitness class formats.

Forty years later, new dance fitness classes have emerged and are proving even more popular than Jazzercise and non–dance-based types of classes. The increasing growth in dance fitness has been further fueled by TV shows such as Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance and the release of home dance exercise DVDs led by celebrity dancers from these shows.


Currently, Zumba Fitness is the world’s largest and most successful dance fitness program. A Zumba class consists of dance fitness moves choreographed to high-energy Latin and international music. Since its introduction in 2001, Zumba has grown to include classes in more than 125 countries and 110,000 locations. According to its website, more than 12 million people take Zumba classes each week. It’s been my personal experience that Zumba draws class sizes of 50 to 80 participants in gyms where other classes average 20.

Other group fitness classes use fun moves and upbeat music, so what is it about Zumba that makes it so popular? “Zumba is exercise in disguise,” says Michelle Kapp, a licensed Zumba Fitness instructor in Pennsylvania. “People are drawn in by the music and dancing and forget they’re in an exercise class. And the classes have a big social component to them, where participants become like a family, looking out for each other and promoting better health.”

Several different Zumba formats are available, including home exercise options for consumers who might feel self-conscious about their weight or not knowing the dance moves. Zumba classes often don’t require a gym membership; many instructors hold classes at local community centers, churches, schools, and other public spaces. And Zumba is considered an all-cardio class, with stretching at the end.

Zumba Toning combines targeted body-sculpting exercises with a lightweight toning stick and cardio dance moves. Zumba Gold and Zumba Gold-Toning are classes modified to a slower pace for the active older adult. While initially designed for seniors, Zumba Gold classes also attract beginning exercisers and people with some movement limitations. “Zumba Gold is all about motivating seniors and beginners to move,” Kapp says.

Zumba Fitness also offers aqua and kids classes. A Zumba DVD package and Zumba for Xbox and Wii are available for purchase on the company’s website.

The tremendous growth of Zumba over the past few years has sparked the introduction of other dance-based fitness classes. These include belly dancing, Bollywood, and hip-hop. While Zumba has infiltrated gyms across the country and the world, these other dance classes haven’t yet made similar inroads into the general gym setting. Mostly offered in larger multicultural urban areas, such as New York City, Philadelphia, Miami, and Los Angeles, these dance exercise formats are practiced mostly in small fitness/dance studios, at home, or in community centers.


Hip-hop moves are occasionally performed in Zumba or other dance aerobics classes, depending on the instructor’s background. But classes based entirely on hip-hop moves are rare due to the sheer athleticism and coordination required to execute street dance movements. Many hip-hop classes are focused more on learning the dance moves rather than fitness. Hip-hop generally attracts teens and younger adults who enjoy that music genre. Classes in urban community centers and dance studios also may be focused on offering positive after-school alternatives to teens.

The following home exercise DVDs for beginner to intermediate fitness levels incorporate basic hip-hop moves and current rap and hip-hop music for consumers who like a bit of funk with their fitness but who aren’t able or interested in the more complicated hip-hop moves:

  1.  Dance Off the Inches Hip Hop Body Blast with instructor Jennifer Galardi;
  2. 10 Minute Solution Hip Hop Dance Mix with instructor Kristin Jacobs; and
  3. Get Fit & Fab With Jillian Michaels(for teen girls).


Bollywood is the nickname for the film industry in India, and the label has been applied to dance workouts that stem from the iconic dance scenes in Indian films. Bollywood dance fitness fuses Indian classical and folk dances with Latin, African/tribal, belly dance, ballet, and jazz. Fitness experts voted Bollywood fitness one of the top fitness trends in 2011. Bollywood classes also are available for kids and teens. Consumers will most likely find Bollywood fitness classes at dance studios and small, specialized fitness centers. DVDs and online classes are more accessible and allow consumers to experience this fusion dance fitness in the comfort of their own homes. Here’s a sampling:

  1. My Bollywood Studio online classes (www.mybollywood;
  2. Bollywood Burn With Hemalayaa (beginners); and
  3. BYou 2: Hip Hop Meets Bollywood (teens).

Belly Dancing

Belly dancing is one of the oldest forms of dance, dating back thousands of years. Belly dancing classes are widely available, but consumers should understand how to distinguish between art and fitness. “Most belly dancing classes taught at dance schools and studios have little fitness application and focus on teaching the art of belly dance with the intention that the student will eventually perform,” explains Portia Lange, a certified group fitness and licensed Zumba instructor and founder/chief instructor at Belly Motions, Inc. in Miami, one of the largest belly dancing studios in the United States. “Belly dancing fitness classes apply belly dancing movements to create a workout, focusing less on dance technique and more on exercise principles with no intentions of offering performance opportunities.”

Lange also created HipNotica Fitness, one of the first standardized belly dancing fitness formats, which combines belly dancing movements with fitness principles to be taught by certified group fitness instructors.

According to Lange, the benefits of belly dancing are many. In addition to being a low-impact, calorie-burning cardiovascular exercise, belly dancing also strengthens the core muscles and improves posture and balance. “Belly dancing is for participants of all ages and fitness levels. Movements center around isolations of the pelvis, rib cage, and arms, conditioning many muscles,” Lange says. Like Zumba, belly dancing is exercise in disguise, she says, and offers a feminine and gentle form of movement.

She adds that belly dancing for fitness also can provide emotional benefits for women because it creates feelings of joy and empowerment. “I’ve seen firsthand the healing powers that belly dancing offers women overcoming life challenges such as divorce, death, or cancer. [They use] belly dancing to find strength, solace, and positivity,” Lange says. “Getting in tune with your body and feeling beautiful while exercising come naturally while in a belly dancing fitness class, and I believe this is how the emotional benefits are obtained.”

Lange believes that belly dancing fitness classes are the next big trend in the fitness industry. Although not required, before taking a belly dancing fitness class, some instruction in the art of belly dancing may be helpful. To learn belly dancing basics, check out Belly Motions Online (online belly dance classes at

The following DVDs will help consumers begin a belly dancing fitness routine at home:

  1. Step-by-Step BellyDance With Leilainia;
  2. Dance Off the Inches Belly Dance; and
  3. Kathy Smith Flex Appeal: A Belly Dance Workout.

For the Advanced Set

Dance workouts are an easy way to motivate beginning exercisers who enjoy music and dancing to get fit and stay fit. For advanced exercisers, though, dance-based workouts may not provide an intense enough cardiovascular workout. A December 2011 study in The Journal of Strength Conditioning Research reported that fit women weren’t able to use their full aerobic capacity when performing aerobic dance exercise compared to running.

However, that doesn’t mean athletes and advanced exercisers should avoid dance-based workouts. “For seasoned exercisers, Zumba is as great a fit as cross training,” Kapp says. Zumba classes are high energy but with less impact than running or boot camp training. And the music and dance-party atmosphere alleviate the boredom of endurance training.

Dance’s Staying Power

Dancing for fun and for fitness has been around for years and is likely to be a group fitness staple for many more years. The American Council on Exercise flagged dancing workouts that incorporate ethnic dance styles, such as salsa dancing, belly dancing, and Bollywood, as a major growth area for gyms and dance studios. If you like to dance, but hate to exercise, try one of these fun workouts.

— Jennifer Van Pelt, MA, is a certified group fitness instructor and healthcare research analyst/consultant in the Reading, Pennsylvania, area.


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