Dancing for Mental Health
· Where did we get the idea that dancing was only about having fun?
· Why aren’t more people heading for the dance floor when there are so many evidenced health and wellbeing benefits?
· Why conscious dance, like Flomotion, should be part of a heath care package for people of all ages?
Keep reading: you might find some answers below.
Dance and physical health
I think most people ‘get’ the link between dancing and physical health: benefits to our cardiovascular system, immune system, posture, weight control, hormonal balance, endurance, stamina, motor skills, memory, improved learning ability and more.
‘Dancing has the added benefit of using almost every muscle in the body’, we are told by two neuroscientists, Christensen and Chang, in their intriguing book ‘Dance is the Best Medicine”. Drawing on large-scale research, they confirm:
‘If we dance regularly, our health benefits more than from regular participation in any other sport’.
There is also the social aspect of dance: we tend to dance for longer periods of time than when doing other exercise. The enjoyment and connection aspect of dance gives us the impetus to keep going … good for the lungs, good for the heart.
And as we dance, unlike other sports, we can constantly make adjustments to our body to prevent pain and injury.
So what’s the link to dance and mental health?
In his book, The Dance Cure, Dr Peter Lovatt tells us that the reason why dance is so beneficial to mental health is that it allows us relief from day-to-day concerns and interrupts negative looping thoughts.
William H Mc Neill, Professor esteemed historian, researched the history of people ‘Moving Together in Time’ and says:
‘…some things seem reasonably sure. The primary seat of bodily response to rhythmic movement is apparently situated in the sympathetic and para-sympathetic nervous systems. These nerve complexes are involved in all emotions.’
So rhythmic movement, dance, is intimately tied up with how we feel. It improves our mood and confidence as evidenced by many studies.
Again, add in the social aspect: group dance has been employed throughout time and in all cultures to strengthen bonds and create community. Dance brings us together and breaks isolation. We are pack animals and our feelings of well being are closely correlated with our sense of belonging and connection with others.
Anecdotally, again and again people report coming to Flomotion sessions feeling depleted, low, disconnected. They end the session feeling engaged, energised, and as they dance over time, grow in confidence as they feel part of a community.
Happiness Comes from Between
In his fascinating book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt speaks of human nature as being ‘groupish’ and ‘ultrasocial’. He says that, like bees, ‘we have the ability…to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves…in something larger than ourselves’. This he calls the Hive Switch (like bees working together). He says it can be seen throughout history in collective and ecstatic dancing which ‘fosters love, trust and equality’.
Haidt concludes that happiness does not come within but from between, and a fundamental way that between is accessible is through groups of people dancing together where there is the possibility of becoming ‘part of the whole’.
Dancing is great fun, right? For many of us, a party isn’t a party without a bit of a knees up. Celebrations like weddings often involves dancing, and nightclubs, raves and festivals all have music and dance at their core. This in itself is good for our mental health: when we engage in physical activity our brain produces the hormones (serotonin and dopamine) that make us feel good.
And don’t get me wrong: I love a dancing party.
There is also something else at play. Barbara Ehrenreich in her wonderful book, Dancing in the Streets (a History of Collective Joy) tracked the history of group celebration and discovered that ecstatic rituals and festivals have been in evidence in the West since ancient Greek civilization.
However due to religious and social control, group cavorting was shut down and stripped of meaning around 1600AD. The enlightenment with its emphasis on mind/body split and a separate self, deepened the chasm. In non-Western cultures the connection of ecstatic rituals and healing have largely remained intact.
When group dance and ecstasy did re-emerge in the 20th Century, for example in the social revolution of the 1960s and later in the 1980s rave scene, it became associated with drugs and recreational activity. Fun was back in our lives, and something of the sacred had been lost. Dance also was the activity of the young; older people or those with disabilities were excluded.
If it’s so good for you, why aren’t more people dancing?
The answer to this isn’t clear. As mentioned above, in the West, it might be part of the legacy of centuries of social repression when group ecstatic experience was debased and outlawed.
The modern Western world has favoured the individual ‘self’ over group identity which has encouraged a sense of ‘self-consciousness’. And as many of us know, this is a great inhibitor to letting yourself loose on a dancefloor. I remember parties from my youth, and to some degree today, where the men would be virtually paralytic with alcohol consumption before setting a foot near a dancefloor.
Related to the conditioning above, I wonder if many people don’t know about the benefits of dance. Strictly Come Dancing has certainly piqued a spectator interest, and TikTok, social media favourite of the younger generation, is all about music and dancing. But dancing with others, not just viewing it in your home, is a different matter.
I see the emergence of conscious dance, which is where Flomotion belongs, as an echo of the old ecstatic rituals. Without doubt people will have the opportunity to have fun, and this may largely determine their motivation to attend.
Dance will once again be available to all people in all age groups; able and not-so-able bodied, seasoned and inexperienced dancers alike. And there is also great potential, known in the non-Western world and by our forebears: groups of people coming together to dance provides tremendous healing opportunity.
I read increasingly about ‘Social Prescribing’ (where health professionals recommend and encourage activities to promote health and wellbeing). Dance should be top of the list.
Quotes from Flomotion attendees
I thought I would end this blog post with a couple of Flomotion testimonials:
‘I just wanted to say that I really loved tonight’s session after a tough couple of days so very special, thank you!’
‘I’ve had a fab dance. I couldn’t but be chilled and smile…I feel so much better than when we started.’
Come and taste the magic: www.flomotion.dance
Julia has practised transpersonal psychotherapy for 25 years. She has had a long-term interest in dance, community, the body and spirituality. In the 1990s she created Spirit in the House; a workshop exploring the transcendent experience of the rave scene.
Julia also holds a Teacher Training Certificate in Ecstatic Dance.