Dance Cardio for People Who Suck at Dancing: A Survival Guide


If you have no rhythm, can you still make dance cardio your thing? (Photo: Courtesy of 305 Fitness)

Let me start with this: I am a truly terrible dancer. Put me on a dance floor with a beat and my muscles tense up, almost as fast as my face turns crimson. Tell me, come on, just move your hips, it’s easy! and I pretty much turn to stone. I’ve lacked the ability to sway to a beat since I was young: Once, in middle school, my science teacher even attempted to teach me some moves during a school dance. (It didn’t work — but thanks anyway, Mrs. Sales!) So I’ve ultimately come to accept that dancing is just not my bag — including dance as a form of exercise.

So when a cluster of invites to try out dance-cardio classes recently landed in my inbox, I was more than a little intimidated. I want to be the girl who flows to the beat and leaves drenched in hard-earned sweat, every little muscle worked as it’s supposed to be. But deep down, I still feel like the girl who ditched the middle school dance to sit on the bleachers — and I’m worried that my lack of rhythm will prevent me from really benefiting from the workouts.

According to Katia Pryce, founder of celebrity-favorite workout class DanceBody, my hang-ups are all too common. “Women are pretty hard on themselves, and no one is as bad as they think they are,” she tells me when I explain my lack of rhythm. “The majority of girls think they are worse than they actually are.” I assure her that I’m probably in the minority on that one, but hearing that others feel the same way is a little comforting.

“Certainly people are intimidated by dancing, but I think secretly we all love to dance,” says Sadie Kurzban, the founder of 305 Fitness, a New York City dance studio known for non-stop choreography, a live DJ in every class, and an anything-goes ethos. What’s more, Sadie tells me, is that even if I’m not a natural-born dancer, it’s not hard to get my heart pumping and work those dancer muscles — I just had to follow a few pointers:

1. Don’t think about it — just do it.
Both Katia and Sadie tell me that the first step is just showing up. “If you’re willing to open your mind, that’s the most important part,” Sadie explains, followed closely by saying goodbye to those inhibitions. “The tip I give newbies is check the ego at the door, set the perfectionist syndrome at the door,” says Katia. “Turn your brain off and your body on. You really do have to let those vices go. You’re going to make mistakes, and that won’t derail your workout.”

2. If you have trouble following a rhythm, there is a way to learn.
“Lots of these classes are to the beat of the music, and when you can’t hear the music, you have a hard time keeping up,” Katia cautions. Sound familiar? Try this before hitting a class: “Put on your favorite song and run in place to it, and every time there’s a beat have your foot hit the floor. Run to the beat; see if you can stay on track with the beat.” If you can stick it out for a whole song, Katia says, you’ll develop the stamina AND rhythm to rock it in class.

3. Get to know your feet.
Dancing starts with your feet (the movie’s called Footloose for a reason…), so stepping up your dancing skills means you need to learn how your feet really work. “Most people don’t actually use the muscles in their feet because they’re used to having shoes on,” Katia explains. To get more comfortable on your feet, “take your shoes off and roll from the balls of your feet to your heels. If you roll through your feet instead of landing on them in class, it’ll protect your knees and ankles.”

4. Don’t stop moving — even if you’re out of breath.
“Just keep moving,” Katia says. If not for you, then for those around you. “One of my pet peeves is when people fake putting their hair in a ponytail. It’s distracting. Even if you’re doing a jumping jack, it looks like you’re doing something.” Try jogging in place or jumping up and down — both to keep up your heart rate and stop others from stopping with you.

5. Don’t hide in the back (even if you feel embarrassed).
“Get a good spot in the room where you can see the instructor. People go to the back because they’re embarrassed, but you want to surround yourself with good dancers,” Sadie explains. You won’t gain dance skills by sheer osmosis — the dream, really — but you will improve by mirroring those around you.

6. Squeeze your abs.
“You have to squeeze your abs to protect your knees,” Katia explains. “When you don’t, all your weight is going into your knees and ankles.” The best way to do this is by imagining your energy radiating toward the sky, through your abs and up through your upper body, rather than down through your feet into the floor. “If you can hear your feet on the ground, you’re landing too hard,” she adds. You should feel “like you’re dancing on hot coals.”

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7. Focus on getting the moves right with your feet first …
“Don’t try to get the arms and the feet at the same time,” Katia tells me when I note that my arms and legs are never on the same beat. “Try to get the feet first because then you’ll be stable.”

8. … And then focus on your legs.
“With dancing, just like any sport, most of the power will come from the lower half of body, so staying coordinated is easiest when you focus on your legs,” Sadie explains.

9. Wear the right shoes.
The shoes you wear will make or break your workout, Katia tells me. “Make sure your sneakers aren’t worn out and they have good shock absorption,” she says. Sneakers wear out every three to six months depending on how often you wear them, and a worn-out sneaker means extra strain on your knees and ankles.

10. Bend your knees.
Ever seen Beyoncé break it down and thought, I want to do that? (Of course you have.) According to Katia, all you have to do is bend your knees. “The No. 1 best piece of advice I can give you is to bend your knees and move your hips,” she tells me. “Bend your knees and you’re instantly a better dancer.” Practice it like this: Plant your feet on the ground and bend your knees enough to be noticeable. Bring one hip up, then the other, alternating to the beat. Instant Beyoncé.

11. Have fun.
I know, I know, but it’s key to getting a good workout, Sadie tells me, as well as sticking to a workout routine. “It’s addictive, and it’s something people look forward to,” she says. “The most effective workout is the workout you can look forward to.”

12. Remember that you’re your own worst critic.
According to Katia, the other people in class are so focused on their own steps that they’re not going to notice your wayward moves. “Everyone is really in their own zone,” she tells me. “The biggest hurdle with dance cardio is getting over that intimidation factor, and the reality is, no one really makes a fool out of [themselves].” And lest you think your instructor is judging, Sadie swears up and down that this is pretty much all in your head. She tells me, “Oftentimes people would come to me after and say, ‘Oh my God, I’m so bad,’ and I had no idea! Instructors are never talking about how bad someone was after class — they’re like, ‘Remember that cute girl?’”

I’m still not convinced, but it’s enough to get me to both of their classes. I pick a spot in the middle, focus on my legs, roll through my feet, and manage to correctly execute about 4 percent of the moves I attempt. Most importantly, though, I can feel those muscles I thought I would never reach (dancer muscles!) come roaring to life. I may not be a dancer, but for each hour-long class, I sure do feel like one.

So take these tips, go forth, and dance like no one is watching — because when it comes down to it, they probably aren’t.

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