Keep fit the Bollywood way

Blame it on 'Slumdog Millionaire' – modern Indian dance is fast becoming the next big fitness trend. Alice-Azania Jarvis gets into the groove

Tuesday 31 March 2009 00:00

I'm standing in Pineapple Studios in central London, clad almost entirely in Lycra, and writhing for all I'm worth. Along with 30 other women, I'm weaving in and out, crouching down, jumping from one leg to the other, and waving my arms in the air. Naturally, I've no idea what I'm doing. "Don't worry about your mistakes!" calls our instructor. "The point is to get into exercise mode. Forget about your day!"

Actually, that has already happened. All those niggling anxieties, those unreturned phone calls, that scrawled list of things to do (NB: urgent!!!!) – all those things that had been playing on my mind in the Tube ride from work, and during the trudge through the rain-sodden streets... all of them, have vanished. And I hadn't even noticed.

Perhaps that's because I'm desperately, very inadequately, trying to keep up with Vandana Alimchandani, the founder of Bollywood Grooves and our mentor for the next hour. She's hopping around, lifting her legs, working her hands into elegant doves as she goes; we are trying to copy. This is the warm up to the beginner-level Bollywood class, and it is tremendous fun.

It is also, it would seem, fast becoming the Next Big Thing in fitness. Blame Danny Boyle, or the longer- lasting trend which has pushed Indian cinema into the mainstream, but Bollywood is rapidly joining jazz, hip-hop and modern dance on studio rostas.

As one of the UK's biggest Bollywood companies, Bollywood Grooves has seen demand increase hugely since its inception in 2000. They used to teach one weekly class of seven; now it is 15 classes of 25-30.

Alimchandani puts this down to a slow-burning change in people's attitudes – not only towards Bollywood, but to Indian culture in general. "People thought it was a fad but it wasn't," she tells me. "About 10 years ago people started to know more about world music. Every time there was a big cultural event we'd get another boost: Bombay Dreams, the Indian Summer festival in London and now Slumdog Millionaire."

Until recently a long-term gym addict, I usually have a strictly functional approach to exercise. I don't particularly enjoy it, but I do enjoy the results: the endorphins afterwards, yes, but also not having to worry about a bit of flab here and there. So I go, run on a treadmill, grit my teeth and get it over with. But after my class with Alimchandani I'm already trying to work out when I can come back. Actually, I can't quite believe how much fun I've had.

Not only is it immensely enjoyable, but also pleasingly accessible. After our freestyle warm-up, we start to learn a routine, very slowly, one step at a time. The class is offered a choice of song: something I've never heard or something from Slumdog Millionaire. Naturally, Slumdog wins.

About two-thirds of the people in the room have been before, and as soon as the play button is hit, they start to bob their heads and sing the words. The rest of us are first-timers, noticeable in our bemusement. Only a few, though, really know what they are doing: four teenage girls in the front corner of the room. In between the blasts of music, they keep going, swinging their hips and practising their own routine. Afterwards, I learn that they had come along to warm up. Their usual lesson is later, as part a troupe that Alimchandani is training for performance.

Reassuringly, I'm not the worst. Or at least, if I am I'm not alone, and I'm certainly not left feeling a fool. There is a pleasingly conspiratorial atmosphere in the room, whereby it's OK to trip up, miss a beat, or (as I seemed to do every five minutes), whack the person next to you over the head with a rogue arm-flail.

"That's another reason we've had such a boom over the years," agrees Alimchandani. "It's really got the feelgood factor. There's no attitude, and it's not as rigid as classical. There's a real combination of styles: folk, jazz, salsa, Arabic, street. It's a friendly dance."

Every time we learn a new part of the routine, Alimchandani takes us through the feet first, then the arms, and then both. After several slow-motion attempts, she starts to speed us up. Then comes the offer of doing it to the music: "Have you got it?" she cries, to looks of panic across the room. "Have you got 70 per cent?" she offers. Yes, comes the relieved response, we've got it 70 per cent. And so, inch by inch, we make progress.

Before long I'm out of breath. This, says Alimchandani, is to be expected: "One of the biggest fitness benefits is the cardio training. The better you get, the less tired you will be." It's also great in terms of toning up. "Bollywood is basically a full-body workout. It tones your calves and thighs and is especially good for your posture. It disciplines your shoulders, your arms and your back."

Dancing of all types has huge health benefits, especially for an activity that's such great fun. It counts as a moderate-intensity activity, and dancing regularly can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and, possibly, some cancers. The variety of moves, particularly in Bollywood dancing, puts lots of different muscles to work and helps to develop flexibility and balance.

Given this, it's not surprising that several schools recently embarked on £900,000 campaign, bankrolled by the Scottish Parliament, to introduce the dance style to the curriculum. It's part of a Government drive to get more people, especially young people, involved in dance in order to fight obesity, realising as they do that dancing is preferable to the usual round of activities on offer in PE classes.

My time at Pineapple flies by. The aim is to include at least one chorus before the hour is up, but before we know it students for the next class are gathering outside, warming up and chattering into their phones. We get to the first line of the chorus and in our final run-though Alimchandani keeps going, freestyling to the beat. Surprisingly, this time most of the class can keep up – we've got used to the steps and the rhythm, and our eyes are more attuned to copying her moves.

With the final note, we stamp our feet and pump a fist in the air – the song's title, "Jai Ho", means victory. And after my first ever Bollywood lesson I feel, if not quite victorious, then at least rather chuffed.

Happy feet: Why dancing is good for us

Dancing counts as a moderately intense exercise – if done for 30 minutes five days a week, it can halve your risk of having a heart attack, according to the British Heart Foundation. If you fancy getting jiggy there are plenty of other styles to keep you busy:


Great for posture, flexibility, balance and co-ordination as well as the abdominal and back muscles. Also develops concentration thanks to the need to memorise complex positions.

Tap dancing

A great calorie-burner and one of the best dance forms for getting aerobically fit, because it's less "stop and start" than others. Lower body, legs and calf muscles are worked and tap dancing is serious cardiovascular exercise as well.


Offers a high-energy workout while building muscle strength and tone as well as stamina. It's extremely physically demanding – classes are not usually offered to children under 8.

Creative dance

This is an revival of "music and movement" classes from the Seventies. It improves lung capacity, flexibility and aerobic capacity. Dancers make up their own moves, which improves imagination and creativity.

Ballroom and Latin

Strutting some moves from 'Strictly Come Dancing' will improve your posture, flexibility and endurance. It's deemed good for older people, as steps include walking at various paces. A major study found that frequent dancing was the only physical activity that protects against dementia.

Club dancing

Yes – clubbing is a form of exercise. Similar to an aerobics session, it relieves stress and gives an all-over body workout. Club dancing uses muscles that wouldn't get flexed at the gym and combines different muscle groups. Louise Ridley

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