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Dance Is a Powerful Tool for Emotional and Physical Health

Bring the power of dance into your own life.

Key points

  • Research shows that dance and movement can improve both emotional and physical well-being.
  • Many people are afraid to try to dance.
  • Watching dance performances can also be good for your emotional well-being.
Source: Vitakhorzhevska/Shutterstock

Betty*, who started therapy for help with her self-confidence, told me that she had been invited by a friend to go dancing. “I don’t know how to dance,” she said. “I’m afraid I’ll embarrass both of us.”

Harry* wanted to get married and have a family but had not been able to find the “right” woman. A woman he was dating invited him to go with her to a dance performance. “What do I know about dance?” Harry said to me. “I won’t have anything to say. I’ll feel like an idiot. And what if I hate it?”

Jordan* was a modern dancer who came to see me after a serious injury interrupted his career. “I’m nothing without dance,” he said. “I can’t imagine my life if I’m not dancing.”

They are just three of many clients whose lives were impacted by dance. I thought of them when I attended a children’s performance of the Pilobolus Dance Company. As an introduction, the troupe explained that they were named for a mushroom that “grows on poop.” As you can imagine, the kids loved the image.

What struck me was how often dance has helped clients grow during some of the worst times of their lives. This includes people who complain that they are awkward, clumsy, and tone-deaf.

Not everyone loves to either dance or watch someone else dance, of course. But research has shown that both participating in and watching dance can help emotional and physical healing. One study found that just practicing Argentinian tango for one and a half hours a week significantly lowered depression in participants. Dance movement therapy uses therapeutic movement, which research shows promotes physical, social, emotional, and cognitive integration.

But you don’t have to go to a dance therapist to enjoy the benefits of dance movement. Participating in some form of dance, whether it’s online Zumba, formal classes, line dancing or jumping around at a club, or free-form movement in your living room, can give you a better sense of your own body and help you eliminate tension and chronic fatigue. It can help you manage stress, and, of course, it can aid you in becoming stronger and more flexible. And while watching a dance performance doesn’t necessarily strengthen your own muscles, it can similarly aid in reducing stress, calming you, and even feeding your creative juices.

Maybe you already know all this, but you still can’t get yourself to start moving. Maybe you think dance just isn’t for you. Maybe not, but here are some ideas to help you stick your toe in the water to test how it feels. Maybe you’ll change your mind.

It’s a good idea to check with your doctor before you start this or any new exercise. You don’t want to do anything that’s going to make you feel worse!

Once you have the physical go-ahead, try the following steps (pun inadvertent, but appropriate!) to bring this powerful tool for emotional, mental, and physical health into your own life.

If you feel awkward, clumsy, or embarrassed about dancing: It’s not an unusual feeling, but it doesn’t have to interfere with your being able to get all the benefits that come along with dancing. Try dancing at home, when you’re alone, to whatever music you most enjoy. Don’t look at yourself. Just let yourself move to the music until you feel comfortable with it. This activity is enough to give you the benefits of dancing, but if you think you’d also like to try dancing in a more public place, you could do what Betty did.

Although she was worried that getting up and dancing where others could see her would destroy the self-confidence she was gradually building up, she also wanted to be able to go to parties and enjoy herself. So she asked a close friend to teach her some dance moves. Her friend was happy to join her in this new project, and they had so much fun exploring different styles and different music that it was almost easy for Betty to start dancing at parties!

One quick note—although it might seem that alcohol or drugs would make it easier to lose your inhibitions, these substances can interfere with the benefits of dance. It’s much more effective to work directly on your ability to move to music without them.

If you feel like you don’t know enough about dance to enjoy watching a dance performance: This, too, is not an unusual feeling, but it, too, can be overcome easily. One thing to think about is that dance is an art form, and art’s meaning is whatever it means to each individual viewer—which means, it’s your call. If you like something, that means it speaks to you in some way or another. If you don’t like it, it’s simply not for you.

If you want to know more, you can simply go to a dance performance with a friend who is knowledgeable and ask them to teach you about it. If you feel uncomfortable with that idea, you can also educate yourself. Watch some shows or performances online. Check out the website for any company that you are going to see.

Harry was uncomfortable sharing his lack of knowledge with his new lady friend. But he finally decided that if this relationship was going to work, it had to be based on honesty, so he told her about his concerns. She was very grateful that he had shared with her, and she said, “Oh wow. People who don’t know anything about dance watch dance all the time. I’m happy to talk about what I know, but, mostly, I want you to see if you like it. And there are all kinds of different dances we can go to see, to find out what you do and don’t like. But, if you don’t like any of it, that’s okay, too. We can still enjoy each other even without both liking the same things. What’s most important to me is your honesty.”

If you are concerned that anything less than professional work will feel boring: This is a problem many injured dancers face. But sometimes even amateur dancers feel that they will be bored by a beginner or slow class. It’s part of what Jordan struggled with, but he found that beginners' classes forced him to work his muscles correctly, something that he realized he had not been doing for years. “When I’m dancing for work, I sometimes ignore what my muscles need in order to get into a particular position,” he told me. “That’s probably how I ended up getting injured in the first place. Taking a slow class has reminded me of how much work it is to dance properly. I think even when I’m healthy again I will try to take one of these classes at least once a week.”

Dance is a powerful tool in your mental and physical health toolbox. Don’t let inhibitions stop you from using it!

More from F. Diane Barth L.C.S.W.
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