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21st November 2022

Can we dance ourselves happier and healthier?

It’s time to embrace dad dancing! Research reveals the power of dance to improve our mental health and well-being.
Can we dance ourselves happier and healthier?

Undeniably, some funky shapes have been thrown on the dance floors of Manchester’s vibrant night scene. The Hacienda and the clubs of Canal Street have given Manchester its iconic nightlife reputation. Many of us students have spent the night busting our best moves only to later realise we spent the night dad dancing instead of the smooth grooving we intended. But research suggests dance is incredibly good for our emotional and physical well-being. So we should probably learn to embrace this form of self-expression and value the venues that accommodate our disco disasters.

What is dance therapy?

Dance therapy is the treatment of disease using dance and psychology. It is used as an add-on therapy to treat neurological disorders such as dementia, depression, and Parkinson’s disease. In the case of Parkinson’s disease (which is characterised by reduced mobility and poor balance), a ten-week tango programme was shown to improve balance, mood and general well-being. 

The power of music and movement

As we all know, the dance floor only empties when the music stops. Likewise, an essential component of dance therapy is music. Music stimulates neural connections in the brain, inducing the release of dopamine. This happy chemical can radically improve our mood.

However, music in isolation is simply not enough. Music must be coupled with movement to have a full healing effect. In our increasingly individualistic world, isolated passive activities are on the up. For example, listening to music via headphones or watching Netflix alone.

Dance therapy provides a social environment to enjoy music. Moving in time with others and mirroring actions activates new cortical patterns, instead of following the ones damaged by neurodegenerative diseases. In addition, letting loose and improvising are shown to improve self-expression and awareness of one’s emotions. This can create a more cohesive relationship between patients and their carers, as the patient is better able to communicate their symptoms.

An anti-ageing remedy?

The UK’s ageing population means new methods are needed to improve the quality of life of a demographic vulnerable to loneliness and health complications. Where traditional medicine has failed, dancing has waltzed onto the stage. In 2013 the RAD (Royal Academy of Dance) reported that dance is the best form of exercise to prevent the deterioration of the brain and slow down ageing.

Dance requires spatial awareness with a partner and/or your surroundings. Movement in combination with music stimulates the cerebellum, the section of your brain responsible for balance and spatial awareness. Stimulating the brain creates new synapse connections, protecting against the progression of destructive brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. 

The report by the RAD found that elderly people who participated in a dance class were 37% less likely to have a fall. This is because dancing improves balance and coordination and increases reaction time. One-third of adults over the age of 65 fall once a year and many of these falls require hospitalisation. Therefore, it could be said that dance therapy has the potential to ease the pressure on the NHS from the ageing population.

Unfortunately, when the budget tightens, the arts are often the first to be slashed by the government. As a result, dance therapy classes are becoming increasingly inaccessible.

It’s good for the young too

Maybe you’ve danced the night away only to wake up the next morning (or afternoon) thinking that the time could have been better spent in the library. Well, fear not because GPs are prescribing physical social activities to improve patient well-being. This new form of medicine is referred to as social prescribing.

Examples include gardening, bingo, and dance classes. In one case, preschool students were prescribed weekly dance classes. Dancing was found to improve the children’s social skills, behaviour, and academic success. 

In another case, a group of depressed adolescents were prescribed improvisational dance classes. Immediately following these classes their serotonin (the ‘feel good’ chemical) levels rocketed. In the long term, they showed a sustained decrease in depressive symptoms.

Sometimes all it takes to feel better is the space and permission to get a bit silly on the dance floor. Long gone are the days spent feeling guilty about dancing the night away. 

 The value and future of nightlife culture 

The scientific benefits of dance highlight the need for nightlife venues in our formative years. Youth require these spaces to bond with friends and discover the ability of movement and music to alter our mood.

When dance floors emptied during the pandemic, young people lost their spaces for self-expression. ‘We’ve Lost Dancing’ – a track made in response to the pandemic by the British producer Fred Again captured the loss of connection experienced. Not only did we lose dancing, but all the mental and physical benefits that come with it.

The pandemic allowed us to pause and realise the social value of nightlife venues and the need to make them inclusive safe spaces. However in the wake of the pandemic and current austerity the nightlife industry is suffering with 14 venues closing every month.

In response to soaring energy prices and lack of governmental support, one club in Glasgow turned to innovative technology that uses dancers’ body heat to warm the building. Venues are being forced to get creative or close.

Continuing research into the ability of dance to treat disorders and improve well-being should force the government to accept the value of nightlife culture and dig a little deeper into their pockets. Research shows that dance can make us happier and healthier individuals. For many, this is reason enough to embrace getting down at the disco. 

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