Workouts based on dance styles are dominating the fitness class scene. But can an exercise class really deliver the joy of dance along with a serious calorie burn? To find out, I sweated through three varieties — Zumba, barre and a Bollywood-inspired class — along with body-monitoring gear.
Yes, I wanted to burn calories. But I also wanted the exhilaration of dancing. My life used to revolve around dance: I studied ballet, modern and other styles as a child, attended an arts high school and then studied dance in college. But since becoming a professional journalist, it has become increasingly difficult to ensure that some form of dance remains in my life.
So while this once-devoted but never-professional dancer still takes ballet or modern class occasionally, I’ve sought out dance-inspired fitness classes to see if they’ll scratch the same itch — without reminding me that my technique will never be the same.
Here’s what I found along the way.
DOONYA: THE BOLLYWOOD WORKOUT
Location: Chelsea Studios
Courtesy of Doonya
I started taking Doonya classes about three months ago, and I like to describe it to friends as Zumba-meets-Bollywood — with inspiration from Indian classical dance. The 55-minute workout begins with a warm up, followed by a skills drill to break down and practice some of the basic steps. Then the teacher instructs the steps to about 10 choreographed songs, ending with a cool down.
That basic format is the same at Doonya classes across the country. This class, however, was held in a far smaller studio than I’ve taken Doonya in before.
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Instructor Rohan Sheth started by cheerfully reminded visitors that the most important thing to remember is to have fun, which wasn’t typically what I heard in ballet class. Even in unusually cramped quarters that day, it was a great cardio fix, with songs that took the heart rate up and others that brought it back down, true to Doonya’s description as a “high-intensity interval training fitness program.” The class also incorporated a strength component with planks, standing crunches, leg lifts, and squats. (Some classes I’ve taken have even included burpies and weights for arm strength.)
Calories burned: about 350
Steps: about 4,500
Length of class: 55 mins
Overall: The cardio and strength aspects, with an emphasis on form, both fit easily into what felt very much like dance. It was musical, symmetrical, and performative, in a comfortable, judgment-free environment. Sheth would sometimes preface a song or gesture by translating or explaining its meaning to help draw the dance out of even the most shy attendee. It’s no mistake Doonya has quickly became one of my go-to workouts.
Location: The Ailey Extension
Zumba is an aerobic fitness class inspired by Latin American dances, such as salsa, though sometimes hip hip and other styles are incorporated. I’ve tried several classes since in 2013, and there can be a lot of variation in its “danceiness”: Some classes can feel simply like stilted, unmusical aerobics. I consider among my favorites those at Ailey Extension, the branch of the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation that bills its offerings as “real classes for real people.”
Zumba class with instructor Richard Martinez was a blast, though perhaps not ideal for first timers, one or two of whom looked bewildered behind me. The music was extremely loud. The energy level was sky high, and the movement was nonstop. I got the impression that at least a third of the class was comprised of regulars who were familiar with some of the choreography. There were no pauses to break down steps. When Martinez would sometimes leave his post up front to wander through the room and hype people up, I relied on the regulars to learn the sequences. The class was sweaty, sexy and sassy, with hips shaking and circling everywhere, shoulders shimmying, and bodies rolling. Most of the hour felt like pure dancing rather than a dutiful workout.
Calories Burned: about 390
Length of class: 60 mins
Overall: While there’s a little bit of strength mixed in—mostly for the legs — the class was primarily a cardio workout. As with the last song of the night slowed everyone down, moving through a kind of lyrical stretch sequence. This was perhaps the one point at which I felt a departure from a dance sensibility: We didn’t stretch all the right spots to correspond with the workout, like the calves and thighs. Nevertheless, I left tired and smiling.
Location: Pure Barre NYC, Financial District
There is a barre involved, but that doesn’t mean it’s anything like ballet.
That’s been my main gripe about the barre craze since I tried it about five years ago on a new client deal for an unlimited month of classes. It left me a little baffled by the idea that barre class could sculpt your body to resemble that of a dancer. In my experience, the leg and thigh exercises work different muscles from what ballet develops. In ballet, everything is turned out and activated from the inner thighs wrapping outward. Barre seems to do the reverse, and its small pulses with bent knees seem to counter the long-and-strong aesthetic ballet fosters.
That said, instructor Ashtain Rothchild, who is a dancer herself, later pointed out that barre classes are more of a complementary cross-training than a mimicking of ballet technique. Regardless, it’s incredibly difficult, and I lack the requisite strength, especially in my core and upper body. So I went to a barre class with low expectations and a little dread.
Rothchild put the main focus on strength, with portions of the class devoted to the legs, “seat,” abs, arms, and back. She demonstrated and talked us through the sets, encouraging us to make the last reps the best. At times, she walked around to give individual corrections on form, which was crucial for a newcomer like me. We stretched out relevant areas after working them “past the point of fatigue,” and did another round of stretching on our mats in a dimmed studio just before class ended.
Calories Burned: about 330
Steps: 120 steps
Length of class: 55 mins
Overall: Several hours later, I could feel the soreness settling into my legs, butt and hip flexors. In that sense, it did remind me of the aftermath of taking a first ballet class after some time away, though the soreness appeared in different spots. It made me miss ballet even more than usual. I was nostalgic for the feeling that comes after truly engaging your turnout muscles and surviving a grueling adagio. I’ll probably end up back at barre class once in awhile to improve my strength, but it also reminded me I need to get my (achy) butt back to ballet class.