Welcome to HuffPost Canada’s series on what fitness means to Canadians: “What Does Fitness Look Like For Me?”
There are plenty of stories out there about how people can “lose weight.” We’re not interested in that. We want to know what Canadians really think about fitness, how it makes them feel, and whether they think it’s important for their health. Because no matter what fitness looks like for you, it’s valid.
Today we’re talking to: Dancers.
When most people hear “fitness,” more often than not they picture people lifting weights at the gym or running on a treadmill. But fitness doesn’t have to be limited to just that.
Exercising can be as simple (and fun!) as dancing around in your living room for 20 minutes each day to Lady Gaga.
Dancing gets people moving, and that’s what fitness is all about. That’s why we decided to speak to five professional dancers about what role fitness plays in their lives, how they fell in love with dance in the first place, and their tips on how to dance like nobody’s watching.
Note: Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
How did you get started with dance?
Kaja Irwin, 32, is a professional jazz dancer, choreographer, and dance educator currently working as a company dancer with Calgary’s Decidedly Jazz Danceworks (DJD).
I started dance classes when I was four years old at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. I was always moving and dancing around as a child, so my parents put me in a creative movement class. As soon as I started taking lessons, I fell even more in love with dancing and movement.
Music has always made me want to move and, in general, I am quite expressive with my body, even in everyday life.
Senyo Akakpo, 28, is a professional hip-hop dancer, teacher, and choreographer whose work has been featured in festivals like the Juno Awards and Culture Shock.
I got started with dance fairly late ... at age 18. I ended up joining [a small dance group at Ryerson University called Studio 2] and later [became] one of the leaders/teachers.
After graduation, I decided to pursue a professional career (and after learning from multiple professional teachers and being in pre-professional training programs).
Ria Aikat, 30, is the co-founder of Dance ’N’ Culture and is a dance artist who specializes in bharatanatyam (a classical Indian dance), Bollywood, bhangra, hip-hop, and house.
My mom put me in ballet when I was six years old. She loved dancing when she grew up and always enjoyed watching dance. I was a hyper kid, and dance was a way to channel all that energy.
Taylor Hunt, 28, is a professional dancer, educator, and fitness instructor who specializes in ballet, jazz, and salsa.
My mother noticed that I took up dancing and singing around the house at age three and the rest is history. Every year I added on a new discipline until it became my main focus and career path.
Throughout the years, my artistic interests have shifted through many styles, but I am always happy as long as I am moving and learning kinesthetically.
Andrew Nemr, 39, is the artistic and executive director of the Vancouver Tap Dance Society and was a tap dancer for over 25 years.
I started dancing when I was three-and-a half years old. Neither of my parents dance, but they thought it would be a good social activity for me, their only child. I started with all styles and eventually focused on tap dance.
What made you decide to specialize in one style of dance over another?
I grew up taking ballet, tap, and jazz until I was 18; I loved all three styles at the time but that was all I knew in terms of the world of dance. My mom also put me into bharatanatyam (a classical Indian dance) when I was a teenager so I could learn more about my Indian heritage.
[It wasn’t until] I joined the South Asian dance team at my university, [that] I was introduced to hip-hop and Bollywood and my mind was blown. I connected to the music, the grooves, and the cultural aspects of both these dance styles more than I ever did to the three studio styles I grew up learning.
Now, I do a lot of fusion choreography with all the eastern and western dance styles I’ve learned and as an Indo-Canadian, it’s a creative outlet for me to explore both sides of that identity.
When I was nine years old, I saw the movie “Tap.” It was then that I first saw improvisational tap dancing and a model of this beautiful community of dancers, encouraging one another’s individual expression within a common form.
The ability to express oneself through sound and movement was very attractive. Looking back, the communal aspect of the dance was also important for me as an immigrant and an only child.
The journey of pursuing tap dance taught me about community and has guided me in finding one.
I have always grown up around hip-hop culture living and growing up in [Toronto’s] Rexdale area, but I never had much interest [in dance] until later. I [also] love the storytelling aspect of the culture and as a Black male who has grown up and been around people who have lived the lifestyle, I identify with hip-hop culture a lot more than other styles.
WATCH: Women teach girls to break hip-hop glass ceiling. Story continues below.
Dance is something I actually kept quiet from my family for a long time because I didn’t think it was something they would support. I graduated with a degree in biophysics and psychology and I thought my [immigrant parents, who are from Ghana,] would be so disappointed if they found out that I didn’t want to be a scientist or doctor.
I knew they wanted me to go into medicine because I was good at the sciences, but I also knew that the old hopes for most immigrant parents was for their kids to go into high paying “secure” careers (doctor, lawyer, etc.).
Now my parents are really supportive of my choice and love to listen about my work. Funny enough, my dad was interested in singing and dance when he was younger but wasn’t supported by his family and let those interests go and pursued other things.
Is dance your primary method of exercise or do you do other forms of fitness?
Dance will always be my favourite method of exercise, which is why I connect so strongly to barre fitness and pilates. I also know how extremely important it is to be cross training as an athlete, so I love HIIT classes and spin classes as well.
“I graduated with a degree in biophysics and psychology and I thought my [immigrant parents] would be so disappointed if they found out that I didn’t want to be a scientist or doctor.”
I am a more informed dancer as I get older. As my body changes, it has been beneficial to study as a fitness instructor to prevent injury, know my physical weaknesses and strengthen where necessary.
Because of my upbringing in a class structure, I will always be a group fitness kind of person. Going to the gym and working out alone doesn’t excite me, so you probably won’t find me there!
As a company dancer with DJD, we train at the gym daily as part of our Monday-to-Friday work day, and each dancer follows their own program and preferences to train in what they need to for their bodies.
I like to do a lot of weightlifting, which I believe makes me a much better dancer both in efficiency of movement and strength.
The rest of our day is full of company dance classes and rehearsals, so each day is filled with movement. I like to be active so this dense schedule works out well for me.
Sometimes if I decide I need a shift of energy, in my free time I will take a yoga class and walk around downtown Calgary.
Dance is my primary method of exercise, which makes it hard to do any other form of fitness. I’ve gotten so used to relying on dance as my exercise, but I notice such a difference in my dancing when I do put in the time to condition and strengthen outside of my regular classes.
Often when I teach kids, they don’t understand why we warm up and stretch at the beginning of every class. As dancers, we are artists and athletes. If your cardio, strength, and flexibility is at its best, you’ll be able to dance bigger, stronger, and for longer.
How has dancing impacted the way you think about fitness?
The way I think and the way my body has developed are both directly related to my experience dancing. I’m continually learning and changing, and my dancing is a part of that process.
Right now, I think a lot about what a healthy system looks like. Do I have good range of motion? Am I eating well? What’s my stress level like? I started to ask these questions as the demands of my dancing began to wear on me. Now I think about them as a matter of general health, and use my dancing as a check-in to see where I’m at on a given day.
Dancing helps me appreciate my body and how much it can do for me. I can ask it to be coordinated, connected, and challenged. I like that it can surprise me, too!
When I think of fitness, I think of what I need to do to be in peak physical state in order to complete the shows I perform in, but also that rest, recovery, and healing are just as important in order for me to be in that state. Finding that balance of activity and rest both in physical and mental states, is how I think of fitness.
I’ve gained confidence both on and off the dance floor. It’s made me think about how our mental and physical health are so clearly linked together. If I don’t dance or move my body for a while, I notice a distinct decline in my mood and motivation to get things done for the day.
Through teaching all ages from kindergarten to seniors, I’ve witnessed dance to be a simple and accessible way to exercise. Depending on your age and ability, dance can provide both gentle and vigorous exercise throughout the week.
Have you ever felt self-conscious while dancing? What advice do you have for people who feel this way, but want to try?
As one of those people who used to be very self-conscious about his ability, I can tell you there is nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone was a beginner at some point and the way I approached my self-consciousness was by just jumping in.
I know that doesn’t always work for everyone, but in a class setting, especially in beginner classes, everyone is so focused on themselves that they don’t notice you.
You may not always get [every move] in class, but appreciate your own personal small victories whether that’s just getting in the studio or just being able to get one of the steps right.
Don’t put pressure on yourself to be an amazing dancer as a beginner. Everybody struggles, and as long as you’re working hard, you should be proud of your growth.
Of course! I continue to feel this way on purpose because that’s where growth lives. Trying something new such as learning a new skill, step, or style will forever be daunting. Knowing that is half the battle because then you can show up for yourself without any expectation of being “good” at something.
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Give yourself time to be a beginner. Repetition is key and I bet everyone in that room will appreciate your courage more than you even realize.
In our society, we have fewer opportunities to dance in our day-to-day lives, which makes it difficult to make that first step into a dance class or even out dancing in social situations.
There is something integral about connecting music, dance, and people that isn’t as readily available these days. Maybe try going to a class with some friends and make it a group outing.
I think it’s valuable to be vulnerable in our lives and even if it’s your first dance class, it is bound to be someone else’s first class as well. Everyone is there to learn and have fun.
Also, dance is so individual and that’s the beauty of it. Accept how you move while you’re feeling the music and try as hard as you can not to judge yourself.
Once you can truly dance like nobody’s watching (because no one is!), the feeling you get when you connect with your body, the space, and the people around you is such a release.
“I think it’s valuable to be vulnerable in our lives and even if it’s your first dance class, it is bound to be someone else’s first class as well. Everyone is there to learn and have fun.”
My advice is to take a class connected to the genre of music you enjoy listening to. I teach a class called Throwback Pop at [Toronto’s] Pink Studio where we exclusively dance to music from the 1990s and early 2000s era.
It’s awesome watching my students break a sweat while lip syncing to their favourite Backstreet Boys jam. So if you love house music, take a beginner house class! If you love watching Bollywood movies, take a Bollywood class! It will make it much easier to dip your toe into the world of dance.
How does dancing make you feel?
Dancing makes me feel alive. I prove to myself every day that I can accomplish amazing feats of strength within my mind and body and therefore it becomes a spiritual practice.
It brings connection to others, reflection on real human experiences, and community to my life, which are important for balance, mental health, and peace. I am the best version of myself when I am dancing.
Dance brings me a lot of joy and allows me a way to express myself and my emotions openly and positively. It wasn’t until I found dance that I understood [what it meant to be] passionate about something.
Dancing makes me feel at home. I’ve been tap dancing longer than anything else in my life. When I put my shoes on and hit the wood, it makes me remember things, feel things, and think about things that seem harder to get to otherwise.
I think it has to do with embodiment and presence. Tap dancing is the place where I can get both of those things at the same time.
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