You started dancing at school – and persevered even though you were ridiculed and bullied. Why do you think you carried on dancing?
It’s horrible to be ridiculed and bullied for doing what you love. It has a corrosive effect on your self-worth and can destroy your self-esteem. I thought about stopping dancing to bring an end to the ridicule. However, I couldn’t stop being ‘me’ – and dancing made me feel the most ‘me’. To stop dancing, in the hope that a group of ignorant bullies would leave me alone, seemed too high a price to pay. I feel physically sick when I hear from people who have given up doing what they love to appease others. It always leaves a heart-shaped hole.
You trained and worked as a professional dancer. How did you develop an interest in psychology?
When I started to read, in my early 20s, I loved reading about how people responded to different relationships and situations. I then read a few case studies and books, such as Dibs in search of self, by Virginia Axline, and Cry hard and swim, by Jacqueline Spring. I also read a bit of Freud and Jung. I then took an A level in psychology before doing my first degree in psychology and English literature. It’s funny, I loved the science of psychology, especially research methods, cognitive psychology and neurophysiology, but I often found more ‘real psychology’ in the novels and poetry I read in English than in the traditional psychology curriculum.
The book explores the effect of dance on the way we feel and how we think. Can dancing improve our mental health?
Yes. Definitively, yes. Dance lifts people’s moods. There are two major streams of evidence for my definitive conclusion. Stream one: anecdotes. Hundreds of people have told me how they self-medicate with dance; how dancing clears their mind of worries and anxieties, connects them with other people and reduces feelings of loneliness; how dancing lifts their self-esteem, gives them an endorphin boost and makes them smile. Stream two: science. There is a large body of scientific research, which shows that dance has a positive impact on the mood of people with depression. Studies have shown that dancing leads to an increase in positive mood states and a decrease in negative mood states. In my own published research, I have found changes in both short-cycle testing and long-cycle testing in people with Parkinson’s (who tend to experience higher levels of depression than age-matched controls), such that dancing leads to a significant reduction in feelings of depression. There’s a third stream too – and it’s personal. Dancing keeps me afloat.
You describe dance as a form of communication. What do you mean by that?
We communicate both explicitly and implicitly when we move. For example, our feelings are embodied when we move, such that we move differently, depending on our emotional state. Whether we are happy, sad, angry, surprised, disgusted or feeling neutral is often represented in our bodily state. When people see us move, they might have some idea about the emotions we are feeling. This, therefore, becomes communication.
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But it isn’t just emotions that we communicate. A large body of scientific research has also shown that we communicate our hormonal and genetic states and traits through the way we move, and people make judgments about us based on these body movements. This is where the communication becomes truly implicit. We are not always aware that we are communicating our body chemistry through our movements and that people behave differently towards us as a consequence.
Can we learn anything about ourselves and each other from dancing?
Body movement is a window into our soul. We can learn how we feel, we can learn about our relationships, we can learn how in tune we are with one another and we can learn about trust, prosocial behaviour and about social, cognitive, emotional and physical connectedness.
Can counsellors and psychotherapists take dance into the therapy room?
Dance movement psychotherapists use dance as an intrinsic part of the therapy experience. I would also challenge counsellors and psychotherapists to dance with their clients. Obviously, there are boundaries, but the use of movement and dance to enable clients to explore their issues in different ways is something that could be explored. The Movement in Practice Academy, which I co-founded with my wife, Lindsey, an occupational therapist, provides online education in the psychology of movement and dance. An online course would be a good starting point for counsellors and psychotherapists who want to explore bringing dance and movement into their therapeutic space.
How do you think dancing can help us during the coronavirus pandemic?
Dance can help us during difficult times by improving our moods, even if we just dance alone in our kitchen. It can also help us to bond socially with our neighbours, so it can help people to feel less socially isolated during a lockdown period. Dancing can also help us to think more creatively – and we need creative thinking in these unprecedented times, and as we emerge from lockdown. Finally, dance is great for helping us to stay fit and healthy.