Dance Away Disease – the Upside to Getting Down
by Catherine Morris | November 16, 2020, updated about 1 month ago
Beetles dance, honeybees dance, monkeys dance. Even stars dance. Nature knows what’s up—moving to a beat is good stuff. You might be surprised at how good though. From disease to depression, dance is a remedy for almost every kind of ailment. It's also a way to connect culturally, spiritually and socially.
Dance is a language that transcends words, and represents the core of what health and wellness really mean to target—joy.
Dance in Our DNA
Dance has always been a part of the human story. We use it for courtship, communication, and social bonding. It's part of our history, culture, and society. It's even in our DNA—babies can move to a rhythm and recognize music before they even learn to talk, and our close animal relatives, chimps, have been known to dance together in conga lines.
Indigenous people throughout Australia, Africa and the Americas dance at funerals to help release the deceased's soul. Even today, the streets of Mexico flood with revellers on the Day of the Dead, when people dance to remember their lost loved ones.
The famous New Zealand Haka war dance is a great example of this, with all its stomping and yelling, it is designed to intimidate enemies and give strength to participants.
There's even evidence of dance at the cusp of civilization. Paleolithic cave art in Borneo, around 35000 years old, shows stick figures madly capering in a familiar way. The Ancient Egyptians also had a few moves, judging by their creative hieroglyphics and engravings.
The Healing History of Dance
Past cultures understood that dance was a healing art.
The Ngoma dance ceremonies of Central and South Africa, which involve drumming and movement as a way of treating physical and emotional struggles, were replicated by a team of researchers who found it did indeed reduce stress, while reducing depression and anxiety as well.
Shamanic healing relies heavily on dance, and acknowledges the connection between movement and medicine. A 'trance dance' ushers the dancer into the spirit world, accessing a higher consciousness to remove blockages and strengthen the body's innate healing abilities. Similarly, in Korea, traditional mission dances were used to ask for blessings from a higher power and draw healing energy from the gods.
Today, the jingle dance, a healing tradition from Native American and First Nations communities, is performed by dancers wearing a garment sewn with metal pieces that chime as they move. The sound helps to carry the healing energy. Usually performed at powwows, the jingle dance went online in March as dancers took to social media to share videos of them dancing for world healing in the midst of the pandemic.
Studying the Science of Dance
It's hardly surprising that ancient cultures looked at dance as a form of treatment. Anyone who's ever been lost in a piece of music knows its power. Even today we recognize that dance is good for you, although we now tend to view it as exercise, art, or a bit of fun, versus a spiritual experience.
Now that there are more scientific tools at our disposal, the medical literature has answers for how and why dance is such good medicine.
Stamina, Coordination and Strength
You'll probably see a lot of dance-related options from zumba to ballet barre in your community centre’s class list. This is because dance doesn't just get you fit, it's a great way to make you a better all-round athlete by building strength, endurance, coordination, and flexibility.
At a basic level dancing works your core, and strengthening those muscles means you'll have better balance and be less prone to injury when engaging in other forms of exercise.
There are millions of ways to dance. You might like free form, or you may want to learn something more structured like the tango or the waltz.More complicated dances are a good way to improve your muscle coordination and balance as you get to grips with the steps and timing.
Feeling stiff and creaky? Dance training improved joint mobility and muscle flexibility, particularly around the spine, hip, and ankle, in cross-country skiers, according to one study.
You don't need to be coordinated to benefit from dancing. Simply flailing around in your own special way will do the trick. Throwing yourself into the music for brief, but intense, activity qualifies as High Intensity Interval Training, which is great for heart health and physical stamina.
Seniors who dance see major benefits. Getting together for a turn around the dance floor improves senior's gait, balance, and coordination according to one study—making them less prone to falls. Australian seniors who took ballet lessons for six months came away with higher energy levels, better posture, greater flexibility, and improved mood.
As science quantifies its healing properties, dance is edging its way into conventional treatment for a range of diseases.
Parkinson's disease, which attacks the motor functions and leads to problems with movement, balance and gait, is perhaps the most studied connections between dance and disease support. In one study, Parkinson's patients enrolled in a 12-week tango course saw improved balance, mood, and cognitive function.
Carefully learning the steps, moving forward and backwards, shifting weight from one foot to the other, and constantly adjusting, helps people with Parkinson's walk better and reduces some of the stiffness and rigidity associated with the disease.
Dance has also been used to help people with rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and cancer. In one study, people with MS who played the video game Dance Dance Revolution found that matching their movements to the actions on screen helped with walking, balance, and cognition. Just as importantly, they had fun doing it and were more motivated to get exercise as a result.
Music and mood go together. Remember getting stuck in an angst-ridden cycle of teenage melodrama listening to slow break-up songs? What about that feeling when your favourite song comes on and you just have to hit the dance floor?
Drama therapist Natasha Williot uses dance and movement to help kids, teens and adults process trauma, and “big” emotions. One of her oldest clients, at 65 years old, had battled anorexia since she was 14. Part of her recovery involved dance. Williot explains—
“She put on a Madonna song and started hopping around and giggling. She was connecting to the healthy part of her body and feeling this sense of freedom. She had never gone out dancing, and for her to be able to exist in a body that wasn't the enemy at that moment was wonderful.”
Moving to music allows people to communicate their pain without needing to verbalize (and therefore re-live) traumatic experiences. Williot says dance is a way of connecting the body and mind to heal in a more holistic way, but cautions that using it in trauma work can be problematic—
"Using your body bypasses a lot of defence mechanisms people have built up for good reason. For some people who have trauma, the body is not a safe place.”
She takes her cues from her clients to proceed at a pace that works for them, and adds—“I wouldn't ask anyone to run a marathon without training”
The process may be difficult, but it's important to remain open to the pure pleasure of it, says Williot.
“This is heavy work we’re doing, but it doesn’t have to be heavy all the time. It can just be the pleasure of moving your body. In our society we don’t have the opportunity to do that enough.”
Creativity and Cognition
Besides helping you regulate your mood, process pain, and recover from mental illness, dance can help you think better.
When we dance, our brains light up—making new pathways, firing up neurons, and releasing 'feel good' chemicals. In 2012, researchers at North Dakota's Minot State University studied a group of zumba dancers and found that the activity improved decision-making, visual recognition, memory and mood.
Music tunes into the reward centres of the brain, while dance gets your sensory and motor systems fired up. Your brain then has to listen to the beat, remember steps, stay alert to your surroundings, tell your muscles to move and maintain your balance—all at a lightning fast tempo.
Dance's effect on the brain explains why it’s gaining attention in nursing homes and senior centres. Older adults who dust off their moves have a lower risk of dementia and more brain power. For those already experiencing dementia or Alzheimers, it can slow the progression of the disease and improve their quality of life.
Making Dance a Part of Your Self-Care
The good news is that anyone can dance. All you have to do is find some music, and move. Do it by yourself in your pyjamas with only the dog watching, your body and brain don’t care.
If you want something more formal though, intuitive dancer and healing artist Christy Greenwood offers an 8-week online 'rewilding dance journey' which includes guided meditation, videos, music, and access to a network where you can engage and connect with fellow dancers. The course can be done by anyone, anywhere, and draws on her extensive experience with energy work, Kundalini, and traditional healing. She says the aim of the course is to “liberate your expression beyond words” and adds—
“People have fear around moving in front of other people because it can be so vulnerable and it is really tender[…] We may begin by feeling vulnerable, but there’s no specific goal other than to move the body in a way that expresses what is going on in the internal landscape.”
Greenwood focuses on Kundalini dance, a type of movement that ignites the body's chakras and energies to bring about an awakening. She says Kundalini dance can lead to powerful moments—
“Sometimes people get these sparks of joy. Sometimes they grieve. People have gone deep and had really transformational experiences. I might guide them through the course, but really I support their inner guide.”
Why Work With a Dance Therapist
If you're dancing to treat a health issue, improve your mental health or deal with trauma, consider reaching out to a dance therapist who can get you started, and provide encouragement and guidance as part of your treatment plan. Sessions can take place online, which makes it a covid safe activity.
Williot says dance therapy would suit anyone who is feeling disconnected from their body, those with boundary issues, or people who may be verbal about their problems but uncomfortable with expressing themselves physically. She says choosing between group sessions and individual therapy depends on your situation and goals.
“Group sessions are great if you want to work on social anxiety, relationship issues, or anything that makes you feel alone.”
Sometimes it's best to start small. Williot encourages clients to find an “imaginary play space” where they can move and explore safely. It turned out to be particularly effective with one client—
“She just looked at me with these wide eyes and had this moment of realization, as if she had discovered a treasure. That wonder of being able to stand there and move in a space that was all hers—that was incredibly powerful.”
Dance, It’s Fun
Williot says, “We have this sense that you have to work hard and anything fun is seen as a distraction and unimportant. The idea of dance as we know it now is different than it traditionally has been. Our conception now is very much based on pleasure and social gatherings. Historically speaking, dancing was about connection—how you connected to yourself, other people, the spiritual world, and the nature around you.”
If you want to explore dance, or the healing power of other creative arts, get in touch with one of our Whichdoctor therapists. Our network includes drama therapists, dance therapists, and art therapists, all available to help you reach your wellness goals.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.