News & Politics

Dance the Inches Away

If you want a slimmer body, try learning to dance: It’s more fun than liposuction or the treadmill, and dance can sculpt legs, abs, and arms

Salsa is not only fun, but it can tone calves and other leg muscles, says Eileen Torres, who offers group lessons at nightclubs around Washington. Photograph by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg.

Professional dancers tend to have long, lean bodies and perfect posture. But you don’t have to be a pro to look like one.

Learning to dance can build bodies and confidence while the music lifts spirits. It’s cheaper than liposuction and more fun than the treadmill.

Area schools offer instruction in styles that range from ballet to hip-hop. You can take any dance class to firm up limbs and torso—dancers call it “the core”—or use our guide to choose a class based on specific body parts you’re looking to tone.

Head and Abs

It irks Laurel Victoria Gray that some ads for belly-dancing classes picture “headless torsos.” Gray, a scholar and teacher of Middle Eastern dance, says the ancient art of belly dancing, which has Egyptian origins, is as much a mental exercise as an abdominal one: “The beauty comes from having confidence, moving with grace, and being in touch with your body.” Women in her classes, at the Dupont Circle branch of Joy of Motion, tune into their femininity while toning their midriffs.

Posture and Spine

Nothing beats classic ballet training for sculpting a long and lean look. Kee-Juan Han, director of the Washington School of Ballet, says ballet “is all about pulling the body up and making a beautiful visual line.” Ballet students train back muscles to hold their spines arrow-straight and learn how to lift and tuck the stomach under the ribcage. The effect, says Han, is akin to “nonsurgical liposuction.”

Shoulders and Upper Arms

Set to drum rhythms, western African dances were created to celebrate religious rituals and rites of passage. The music is upbeat, the movement aerobic. And, says Marcia Howard, who interprets the dance traditions of Senegal and Guinea in her classes at DC’s Dance Place, the skyward gestures work shoulders, arms, and upper back. “I think it helps people to lift their spirits mentally and physically,” Howard says. “I’ve noticed more tone—and women drop a dress size.”


In recent years, urban dance styles, which include hip-hop, street, and popping, have leapt from fringe to mainstream; you can see them on TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance, says Margareta Chughtai, who runs the DC branch of Culture Shock, a national nonprofit dance troupe that offers classes at CityDance. Complex choreography and extreme aerobics mean that urban dance provides good all-over muscle toning. “Every part of your body is moving all at the same time,” says Chughtai. She has noticed another benefit: The profuse sweating that occurs in her sessions, she says, produces beautiful skin.

Arms and Hands

The growing popularity of Indian-made films, which are infused with music, has led to a dance style called Bollywood. Priya Pandya, born of Indian immigrants, started Dhoonya Dance School in 2005 in McLean. At Dhoonya, students move to updated pop versions of Bhangra, the folk music of the northern Punjab region. The effort to combine dance steps with articulated arm and hand motions takes practice. Newcomers tell Pandya: “I am sore in places I have never been sore before.”

Glutes and Thighs

At the age of 27, Paul Gordon Emerson took his first modern-dance class and was hooked. “The music is about something,” says Emerson, now artistic director for CityDance, headquartered at North Bethesda’s Music Center at Strathmore. Professional modern dancers tend to have strong glutes and thighs. The reason? Many of the moves mean hovering close to the floor. Emerson says you can get a comparable toning by working with a personal trainer at a gym—but you’d miss out on the essential connection to modern’s music.

Quads and Calves

Salsa, a Latin dance style, grew popular in America in the disco-era 1970s and remains a nightclub staple. Eileen Torres, who offers private instruction and weekly group lessons at waterfront clubs in Southwest DC, says, “Salsa is good for the whole lower body, including the hips, because of the repetition of rhythmic stepping.” The tempo of salsa songs, which run about five minutes, encourages a lot of exertion. “Salsa is the only exercise I’ve ever seen where students ask for more,” Torres says.

Calves and Feet

At 73, Yvonne Edwards is still tap dancing and teaching at Knock on Wood studio in Silver Spring. The school’s specialty is rhythm tap, which uses dancers’ feet as musical instruments. Sounds are produced by striking the floor with the bottoms, backs, sides, and tips of shoes. While the loose dance style, usually set to jazz, limbers up the whole body, it especially shapes legs and feet. The great thing about tap, says Edwards, is “you don’t have to be lean or light on your feet. If you can walk into the studio, you can dance out.”

Where to Get Dancing

Although you can target specific body parts with certain types of dance, any dance provides good exercise and all-around toning.

“Give several different types of classes a try,” Eileen Torres says. “The one you like the best is the one you will get the best results from because if it’s fun for you, you will keep with up with it.”

Here are some dance programs that welcome adults, from beginners on up:

CityDance Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman La., North Bethesda, 301-581-5204; CityDance Center at Mount Vernon Square, 801 K St., NW, 202-383-1841; Specialties: modern and hip-hop, respectively. Also ballet, tap, swing.

Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St., NE; 202-269-1600; Specialty: African. Also: modern, belly dance, Cuban salsa, hip-hop.

Dhoonya Dance School, 1340 Old Chain Bridge Rd., McLean, and 2614 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-678-8700. Also Coors Dance Studio at Flashpoint, 916 G St., NW; all Specialties: pop Bhangra, Bollywood.

Joy of Motion Dance Studio, Dupont Circle, Friendship Heights, Bethesda, and Northeast DC; Specialties: belly dance, African, ballet, ballroom, Spanish, hip-hop, jazz, modern, tap.

Knock On Wood Tap Studio, 8700-B Georgia Ave., Suite B, Silver Spring; 301-495-0395; Specialty: rhythm tap.

Salsation Productions (Eileen Torres); 202-863-3994; Specialties: salsa, cha-cha, mambo, and other Latin dance styles.

Washington School of Ballet, 3515 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-362-3606; Specialty: ballet.