Dance is the act of rhythmically moving the body and feet. This is usually done to music, and the dancer often follows an established pattern of steps. Styles range from ballroom, which is danced by couples, to performance arts like ballet, where individuals dance as part of a troupe.


Although dancing is a form of exercise, the reasons people dance extend beyond the desire to be fit. From a young age, dancing is instinctive for many people. They dance at events ranging from the high-school prom to a dance at a senior-adult center. Some people sign up for dance classes to lose weight, but they usually choose dance over another form of exercise because they think dancing is more fun.

Dance is also a form of expression for people who dance in styles ranging from ballet to hip-hop. Some performers dance professionally, and there are appreciative audiences for performances ranging from a ballet production of Sleeping Beauty to a hip-hop freestyle competition.


People of all ages enjoy dancing. Young children dance to music almost as soon as they can walk. The enjoyment that dancing brings extends throughout life for many people. Parents may enroll their five-year-old daughter in a ballet class, and she may become a professional dancer as an adult.

An engaged couple could sign up for ballroom dance lessons so they dance well at their wedding reception. As a married couple, they continue dancing.

People also sign up for dance classes to lose weight and improve their overall health. Dance is a great confidence-building activity and a good social activity.


Dance has been a form of expression for thousands of years. In ancient times, people danced as part of religious worship. Their dances were prayers to the gods and goddesses; their movements requested divine help for intentions such as abundant crops or the defeat of an enemy.

Through the centuries, dance was also a form of communication. A group of people sang and danced to relay their history to the younger generation. Their dances could describe success in a battle or an activity like hunting.

Country dances were popular during the Middle Ages, when the common people danced in lines and circles. During the Renaissance, country dances were modified and made more formal for court dances held during the reigns of monarchs including French King Louis XIV and Queen Elizabeth I of England. Dance masters wrote instruction manuals for the dances they choreographed. They also gave instruction and supervised the dances. One of the dance forms in Louis XIV's seventeenth-century court was the cotillon, dances that involved groups of eight couples.

Ballroom dance

The court dance, also known as the social dance, featured dances including the minuet and the waltz. The waltz remained popular at the beginning of the twentieth century. The new century brought a new dance form, ballroom dance. During the first three decades of the century, many new dances for couples were introduced. Among those still danced in the twenty-first century are the Argentine tango, introduced in the United States in 1913, and the American fox trot, first danced in 1914.

Dance partners practice their moves during a dance class. Anaerobic exercise that benefits the cardiovascular system, dancing helps with weight loss, posture, coordination, flexibility, and balance.

Dance partners practice their moves during a dance class. Anaerobic exercise that benefits the cardiovascular system, dancing helps with weight loss, posture, coordination, flexibility, and balance.

Ballet dates back to Renaissance Italy. Court banquets featured a range of entertainment that included dances performed between food courses in 1489. Those performances marked the beginning of ballet. The dance form spread across Europe. French King Louis XIV began dancing ballet as a boy, and was a teenager in 1653 when he danced the role of Apollo, the god of the sun. Because of that performance, he became known as the Sun King. In 1651, the king established the Académie Royale de Danse, the world's first ballet school.

Tap dance

The history of tap dance dates back to the era of slavery in the United States. Enslaved Africans included people from West Africa who danced gioube, stepping dances used in both religious and secular dance forms. That style was blended in the eighteenth century with the Irish jig and other stepping dances done by European immigrants. By the 1800s, tap dance was a popular form of entertainment.


Jazz also traces its roots to the slave era and dances brought from Africa. While tap dance was once considered part of jazz, jazz involves movements of more than just the feet. Jazz dance evolved over time. During the 1930s, couples did new dances like the jitterbug to lively jazz music. In the twenty-first century, couples continue to jitterbug.

Jazz also became a performance art during the second half of the twentieth century. The style known as modern jazz was choreographed for theatrical productions and movies. Famous choreographers include the late Bob Fosse, whose works included the musical Chicago.


Hip-hop dance is part of the hip-hop culture that developed in New York City during the 1970s. People from African American, Latino, and Asian communities created dances to do to hip-hop music.


People learn to dance by taking lessons at locations that include adult schools, community centers, dance schools, and private studios. Books and DVDs provide instruction for people who want to learn at home.

Ballroom dance

Ballroom dances are done by couples. The leader is the partner who guides the couple when dancing. The rhythm of quick or slow steps describes the pace of foot movements. The quick step is one beat of music; the slow step uses two. Progressive dances, those where the couple travels around the dance floor, include the:


Ballet is an art form with steps and poses. Dancers may perform alone or as part of a company. Ballet moves include foot arrangements such as the First Position, where the feet are turned out. There are five foot positions and five arm positions.

Performers may dance en pointe, on the tips of their toes. Another step is the jeté, where the dancer jumps from one foot to the other.

Tap dance

Individuals tap dance without partners. However, two or more dancers may do the same steps in a performance. Dancers wear shoes with taps made of material like aluminum alloy or rubber. The taps on the front and heels of the shoe soles produce sounds when the person dances. Steps include the ball tap that makes one sound, and the shuffle where the foot is brushed forward and backward to produce two sounds.


Jazz is an evolving dance form, and classes may focus on different aspect of the dance. Steps from the early days include the catwalk, where a person mimicks a walking cat by bending the back and crossing one leg in front of the other.

Middle Ages—
The era in European history between 476 and 1450.
The era from the fourteenth through the seventeenth century when the arts, including dance, flourished in Europe.

The jitterbug is taught in swing dance classes. In swing dances, the couple moves forward and backward, and the leader guides the partner in moves that include turns. The jitterbug is more fast paced than other swing dances. The steps for the jitterbug are taps (quick) or slides (slow).

Jazz dance as a performance art involves improvisation, allowing dancers to express themselves. Basic movements involve isolating different parts of the body.


Hip-hop is also an evolving dance form, and an instructor may teach moves or styles that originated on the East Coast, West Coast, or in a specific location such as Baltimore. Hip-hop steps may include “old school” moves like the “Running Man.” Popularized by MC Hammer, foot movements include slides and hops to depict a person running.

Classes include cardio hip-hop instruction for adults, where the dance form is incorporated into an aerobic workout.

Classes usually begin with a warm-up, and could end with groups of students demonstrating their dance moves to the class. After students learn the basics, they usually have the opportunity to freestyle.


Before starting a dance class, people should consult with their doctors to determine that it is safe to do this type of exercise. Some dance forms are more of a vigorous workout than others.

Dance attire

Some dance styles require special clothing, like the leotard worn for ballet. Regular exercise clothes are suitable for most classes, but women may wear dresses to a ballroom dance class.

Footwear should provide support for the type of dancing done. The shoes worn for dancing include:

Jazz encompasses many styles, so the individual taking a class should consult with the teacher before buying shoes. Some instructors have a brand preference; others may want students to wear ballet shoes or another type of footwear.

Prevent injuries

Preparation also includes steps to prevent injuries. The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM) advises dancers to:

Attention to technique

If in doubt about a move, the student should ask the instructor to demonstrate it. Most instructors will describe the move, demonstrate it, and ask the student to do it. If necessary, the instructor will tactfully show the student where errors were made, and ask the student to demonstrate the move again. This may be repeated until the student does it correctly.


Students should not feel self-conscious about this interaction. The teacher wants the student to learn, and a move is one element of a dance pattern. Not only does learning the step give the student confidence, but using the proper techniques helps to prevent injuries.


People dance because they enjoy the activity. If a person dances too much, however, it could lead to an overuse injury, one caused when too much stress is placed on the body. If an inactive person dances almost every dance at a wedding reception, for example, they may experience an overuse injury because their body is not accustomed to such movement.

Overuse injuries may also be the result of years of dancing done by a professional dancer. The AOSSM notes that many professional dancers start dancing when very young. Dance practice requires repetitive movements, extreme strength, and endurance. According to the AOSSM, dancers are “just as susceptible to injury as are football players.”

Overuse injuries include strain, the overstretching of a muscle or joint. Home treatment helps a minor strain to heal. A nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like ibuprofen may provide relief.

Longtime dancers are also at risk of stress fractures, which can range from a hairline crack to a break in the bone.


Dancing benefits people physically and mentally. The activity is an enjoyable aerobic exercise that benefits the cardiovascular system. The intensity of the aerobic exercise depends on the type of dance. Dancing helps with weight loss, posture, coordination, flexibility, and balance.

The physical activity helps people release stress and relax. Learning to dance helps to boost self-confidence, and socializing with other people enriches mental health.



Allen, Jeff. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Ballroom Dancing. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha Books, 2006.


Hebert, Emily. “Ballet Exercise: Natalie Portman's Black Swan Workout.” Elle (November 24, 2010). (accessed January 15, 2017).

Internicola, Dorene. “Tap Dance Syncopates Fitness for any Age.” . May 16, 2011. (accessed January 15, 2017).

“Shoes.” American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society. August 2012. (accessed January 15, 2017).


National Dance Education Organization, 8609 Second Ave., Ste. 203B, Silver Spring, MD, 20910, (301) 585-2880, .

Liz Swain

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.