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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - For fitness outside the box-step of the gym, why not try hoofing it?
Experts say whether you've got rhythm, or just crave it, an extended foray into the purely American art form of tap dance can boost your balance, cardio and core.
"It's great for balance because tap dance is all about weight shift," said Courtney Runft, an instructor at the American Tap Dance Center in New York. "You're forced to stand on one leg, so you're really using those fine muscles on the bottom of your feet."
Runft, who turned to tap dance after injuries sidelined her ballet career, said while the learning curve for tap varies as broadly as her students, who range in age from three and a-half to the mid-70's, consistency yields results.
"I look at some adults who could not stand on one leg three months ago, now they can balance and move their other leg freely," she said. "It really builds the lower body. And once you have the basics under control it's definitely a cardio workout."
The roots of tap dance reach back to the days of slave trade in America when African Americans, forbidden by slave holders from communicating through their traditional drums, transferred their rhythmic messages to their feet.
In the mid-19th century, their footwork merged with the jigs and clog dances of Irish and English immigrants, and tap dance was born.
Elizabeth Larkam, a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, said compared to other activities, tap dance is safe to do throughout one's life because it adapts to any fitness level.
"It's very easy to moderate the intensity," said Larkam, a Pilates and dance medicine specialist, based in San Francisco. "It's more difficult to get a cardiovascular workout in ballet, because one needs a higher level of skill to get those benefits without injury."
In tap dancing one moves in all directions-forward, back, side-to-side, which is superb for balance, Larkam said. Additionally, it connects the feet with core control and visual input.
"You have to look where you're going," said Larkam.
She said studies have shown that the rhythmic aspects of tap dancing are good for the brain, even as it provides the core and bone-building benefits of a moderate impact, weight-bearing activity.
"It doesn't look like a conventional abdominal exercise," she said, "but it does have benefits as a core control activity."
But it's not a complete workout.
"It lacks strengthening for arms, shoulder girdle and upper body, " Larkam explained, adding that it should be supplemented with strength training for arms and upper back, and a stretching program for the calves, hamstrings, quads, hip flexors and trunk.
To progress one should tap dance at least twice a week.
"Once a week will not be sufficient for the motor learning to stay with you," Larkam explained. "It will be like starting new every time."
For cardiovascular fitness, plan on tapping five times a week for 30 minutes.
But it's not as if you have to drag yourself on to a treadmill.
"The music is a great motivator," she said.
At the American Tap Dance Center, Runft tells first-timers to come with an open mind and clothes they're willing to sweat in.
"We have shoes that people can borrow," she said. "After a class or two people are hooked, and they get their own shoes."