Fitness fad: The Bollywood workout

Featured in "Slumdog Millionaire" and "So You Think You Can Dance," this intense, aerobic dance style is now a mainstream workout. Here’s how to tone your arms and legs, Bollywood style

Fitness fad: The Bollywood workout

Source: Best Health Magazine, November/December 2010

You wouldn’t expect to hear the beats of South Asian music coming from the National Ballet School building in Toronto. But on this Sunday morning, 30 participants’from teenagers to seniors’move their hands and feet in unison at a Bollywood dance class.

This type of dance has become more mainstream with the popularity of films such as Slumdog Millionaire. As well, the hit TV show So You Think You Can Dance regularly features the genre.

At this session taught by Lopa Sarkar‘a trained Indian classical dancer’the floor is open to anyone. Seema Varma, a 38-year-old human resources consultant, likes its sexiness. ‘The movements of the eyes, hands, arms and hips are all charged with sex appeal,’ she says. ‘It also energizes me, and tones my arms and legs.’

She convinced friends Sue Murphy, Kim McBride and Josée Rheault to join the class. The women weren’t expecting such intensity. ‘It’s like doing aerobics,’ says Murphy, 36, a supply-chain management professional. But aerobics with lots of personality. The moves are inspired by hip-hop, belly dancing, Latin, and Indian classical and folk dance. Students bop to the beat while swinging their hips and shaking their shoulders.

‘I’m not sure what hurts more after class, my brain or my body,’ says Varma. ‘There are a lot of new steps and combinations to remember.’ It also pushes Varma outside her comfort zone. ‘I’m generally reserved, but here I have to be a bit dramatic.’ The studio is a safe environment to let loose, and having friends around helps. ‘It’s nice to have someone to look over and smile at,’ she says. ‘And laugh with,’ chimes in Murphy.

There are people from many different cultures taking the class, and in all shapes and sizes,’ says Varma. ‘I’m not the most coordinated girl in the world, but I don’t feel uncomfortable here.’

Why is Bollywood dance so much fun? Sarkar says she chooses upbeat mixes where ‘the minute you hear it, you have to smile and dance.’ It’s also good exercise for your upper and lower body, and your core. ‘It’s great for body awareness, muscle memory and improving coordination,’ Sarkar explains. ‘I focus on the hands, arms and lower body, and then we put it all together.’

By the end of class, students have new moves to add to their dance repertoire. ‘It’s more about moving and grooving than getting your hands and feet exactly right,’ says Varma. ‘And, of course, just plain having fun!’

Want to try it? Here’s what you need to know

  • ‘ Wear comfortable workout clothes such as a yoga outfit or sweatpants and T-shirt. Depending on the school, you may dance in running shoes or barefoot.’ Be ready for a fast-paced, high-energy workout”you will work up a sweat. A Bollywood class is similar to high-intensity aerobics, says Sarkar. It burns about 500 calories an hour, and can help increase bone density, strengthen muscles and improve circulation.

    ‘ Bring a bottle of water to help you stay hydrated.

    ‘ Bollywood classes are offered in most major Canadian cities. Check with your local YMCA, or try the Shiamak Davar Institute for Performing Arts in the Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto areas (

    ‘ No class near you? Then spice up your fitness routine with a two-DVD set by Sarkar called Bollywood & Bhangra Dance. For those with limited mobility, one DVD features a seated upper-body workout. ($20 plus $6 shipping,

This article was originally titled “Hooray for Bollywood” in the November/December 2010 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today and never miss an issue!