By Elizabeth Svoboda, published on March 1, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
When Jean Rose was diagnosed with breast cancer, the retiree from Southington, Connecticut, was overwhelmed by a feeling that her body had betrayed her, which only intensified after her double mastectomy. A friend recommended an antidote out of left field: dance therapy. She decided to give it a try. "I've been going back every week," Rose says. "It doesn't just make you feel better physically, it really makes you feel better emotionally."
We tend to think of dance class more as a rite of passage for elementary-school girls than a therapeutic outlet, but mounting scientific evidence suggests a surprising range of psychological benefits, from greater calm and elevated mood to an expanded sense of fulfillment and control. "Dance allows people to experience themselves in ways they didn't know they could," says Miriam Berger, a dance professor and dance therapist at New York University. "You can change your internal state through external movement."
Psychologists have long known that aerobics and sit-ups lift people's spirits. For dancers and mere mortals alike, exerting oneself for long periods of time causes the brain to release the mood-lifting neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine. Further, proteins are produced within brain cells that spur the growth of new neurons and new cell connections, literally making minds more supple. Physical activities, from sprinting to ballet, also release endorphins, brain chemicals that promote satisfaction, euphoria, and high pain tolerance.
Still, dance boosts mood more than does exercise alone. In a study at the University of London, researchers assigned patients with anxiety disorders to spend time in one of four therapeutic settings: a modern-dance class, an exercise class, a music class, or a math class. Only the dance class significantly reduced anxiety. Cardiac-rehab patients in a recent Italian study who enrolled in waltzing classes not only wound up with more elastic arteries, but were happier than participants who took up bicycle and treadmill training.
What accounts for the emotional high dancers experience? As a general rule, moving to music activates the brain's pleasure circuits. "On a physiological and psychological level, humans like order and form, and the rhythm of dancing to music provides that satisfactory patterning," Berger observes.
The brain's structure may explain another important source of mood boost: Dancing bonds people, according to Robyn Flaum Cruz, president of the American Dance Therapy Association. MRI scans show that watching someone dance activates the same neurons that would fire if you yourself were doing the moves. So when one dancer's movement expresses joy or sadness, others often get to experience it as well, spreading feelings and fostering empathy.
Cruz recalls teaching one particularly memorable class where students started improvising individually, then gradually began moving in sync with each other. "Afterwards," she says, "all of them described feeling that they were supporting each other, relaxing into the rhythm of being together."
Dance's expressive aspects help people process feelings they may have trouble dealing with in conscious, verbal terms, says Gabrielle Kaufman, a Los Angeles dance therapist. "One patient told me how she felt out of control in her life, like a pot on a potter's wheel, and I said, 'What a powerful metaphor. Let's move it'," Kaufman says. As the patient did an improvisational dance, turning her emotions into motion, "she started to think, 'Where can I take some control back? How can I build my own vessel, so to speak, the way I want it to be?'"
Traditional dance classes encourage much of the same body mastery as therapeutic sessions. In a study at the University of Wolverhampton in the U.K., participants in modern-dance classes experienced short-term mood boosts. Berger speculates that the sense of achievement and well-being that comes from expanding and perfecting one's movement repertoire may carry over into other areas of life. "One of the most important parts of psychotherapy is relearning things you learned wrong," she says. "With dance, you have a great opportunity to do that on a physical level."
Shed your wallflower status and get into the groove.
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"So many things can cause us to be critical of our bodies," Cruz says. "But movement is really our first language, and dance is a way to get back to that."
"You look just like a dancer," people tell me when I don my tulle skirt and ballet flats. But after growing disillusioned with endless ronds de jambes at the age of 9, I'd phased dance out of my life for more than 15 years. This past fall, I signed up for an adult beginning ballet class to revive my long-dormant enthusiasm for dance—and to test the strength of the dance-mood connection.
I'm hoping my classmates will share my initial level of incompetence, but several perform pas de bourrees and glissades across the floor with ease, while I tip over like a poorly spun top every time I attempt a simple pirouette. Not exactly the best remedy for a work-induced foul mood, though the hour-and-a-half workout supplies a mild exercise high.
I've got a long way to go, but I no longer fear mistakes and the resulting humiliation—striking up friendships with a couple of other absolute beginners has strengthened my sense that we're all in the same (show) boat.
When I finally master a step sequence, the feeling of accomplishment is unsurpassed—like completing a difficult math proof and writing "Q.E.D." with a flourish. Ballet's no miracle drug, but for $15 a week, I'll take it.