I don’t know if I would have made it through the past two years without dancing — wildly energetic dancing.
It wasn’t pretty — often I’d start quietly, calmly and then go wild, angry fist-pumping wild, until my shoulder was sore. There was also spinning until I was dizzy, flinging myself horizontally, full-body shaking while weeping, and plenty of stomping.
Even though I’m sure it looked weird, I had to get the feelings out, and it worked. Dancing made me feel relieved, relaxed and even content in a way that a hard swim or run didn’t. Those just exhausted my body, but dance emptied my heart and quieted my mind, too.
It’s not just me — a small but growing body of research suggests that dance may provide more mood benefits than other types of cardio exercise.
While 30 minutes of heart-pumping activity a day is a well-known way to strengthen and tone muscles, bolster the aging brain and improve mood, studies suggest that dance — of almost any kind — can help reduce anxiety (more than generic aerobic exercise) and chronic pain. It was found to lower depression in college students in one study. And while research on dance therapy and dementia is still limited, several studies suggest it can improve or stabilize the quality of life in people with Alzheimer’s disease and have a positive effect on the “cognitive, physical, emotional and social performance” of people with dementia.
Why does it work, beyond the benefits of any good aerobic exercise? Dance therapy experts say it can provide a space to express aspects of our personality that might be buried, uncomfortable or for personal or cultural reasons are discouraged (such as anger, for women).
“We hold every experience we’ve ever had in our body, so being able to move may release something that we’ve been holding, tucked away in a muscle,” says Angela Grayson, a clinical psychologist and president of the American Dance Therapy Association. “The muscle has the memory of it, and when we’re moving, we can release that.”
Dance/movement therapy (DMT) is based on the idea that dance can be part of the therapeutic process, a way to communicate nonverbally. It combines some of the well-known, positive effects on mental health that exercise generally provides, along with something deeper that can be especially useful when talk therapy is not working. Inherently, dance is about connection and expression, says Jacelyn Biondo, a researcher at Drexel University’s Department of Creative Arts Therapies.
“If five different people ride a bike, it’s going to look similar, but if five different people dance, it will vary, because they’re expressing themselves,” she says.
Biondo, who is also a dance/movement therapist, says she has seen dance therapy help people struggling with depression and anxiety. But her expertise comes from working with patients experiencing acute symptoms of schizophrenia in inpatient psychiatric hospitals. In that context, she says dance can be a good therapeutic tool.
In a 2021 study, Biondo and colleagues found that people experiencing schizophrenia who did dance therapy had a decrease in symptoms, including auditory hallucinations, paranoia and delusional thinking, when compared with a control group of patients who did talk therapy only. They also showed an increase in emotional expression; and a decrease in psychological distress.
Grayson says dance therapy can work for many mental health conditions, which makes it a useful tool for a therapist in a variety of settings. She recommends DMT for people who have had traumatic births, grade-school children who have difficulty getting feelings out and putting them into words, and specialized programs for high school students. It can benefit people in aged-care homes, prisons and addiction-treatment centers.
“Working with a Dance Movement therapist who is a trained observer, you get support to help you process what’s being expressed in the dance, and establish a treatment plan,” Grayson says.
Like me, many people have discovered the feel-good effects of dancing outside the therapeutic setting.
I prefer dancing solo, with the simple goal of letting my feelings out through movement. But across the country, social options have cropped up.
Ecstatic Dance organizes alcohol- and drug-free group dancing in cities around the world, including indoor and outdoor events. It is a specifically nonverbal practice, so dancers express themselves with beat, movement and breath. On Venice Beach in Los Angeles, barefoot dancers wear headphones to listen to music played by a DJ at a weekly event.
The free-form 5Rhythms Dance guides practitioners through five stages of movement, focusing each stage on a different body part, emotion or expression and can be a way to deal with grief, anger and stress. Lucia Horan teaches both online and in-person 5Rhythms classes at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif. and trains teachers in the practice. Although she has taught for over two decades, Horan found dancing helped her deal and heal from her own set of pandemic stresses: evacuations from devastating wildfires in California and two miscarriages.
She also did talk therapy, meditation and trauma work, and took time in nature, but she says the “beauty of dance is that it addresses these quadrants of healing — the physical, the emotional, the mental and the spiritual.” Horan says that’s one of the keys to why dance works for many people — but it’s also because it forces people to focus on the present moment, which can bring relief from worry, grief and emotional pain.
“A lot of suffering happens when we are thinking about the past or the future; we go over and over those things in our mind,” Horan says. “But dance is a presence-based practice, so our attention is drawn again and again to the present moment.”
Experts say if you don’t want to engage in a therapeutic program and just want to try dancing yourself at home, you don’t need any special equipment, and you can wear whatever you like.
Just clear a large enough space to allow expansive movement (cover any sharp edges), put on some music that you love — anything that inspires you — and start moving. There are no rules on what to listen to or how to dance. And anyone can participate — Horan says people showed up to her online classes bedridden from cancer treatments, and all experts stress that people in wheelchairs, those unable to walk, people who are blind or ill can still participate — because dance is for everyone, even if that means just moving hands or arms.
“Just meet whatever is present and move,” Horan says. “Dance until the dancer disappears and only the dance remains.” Afterward, sit for a bit and just be still. Movement externalizes and releases stress. Meditation allows the space for integration to take place.
The pandemic has been an emotionally difficult time, and many of us are still experiencing grief. Horan says dance is a way to “listen to the truth of the body and allow it to be explored in all its opposites — it gives us this freedom, it gives us permission, it gives us a way through.”