Physical activity, such as dancing, can reduce all causes of mortality more effectively than medication. Fact. A study published in the British Medical Journal in September 2019 found that regular dancing led to a 20%–30% lower risk of depression and dementia, a 30% lower risk of colon cancer, a 20% lower risk of breast cancer and a 20%–35% lower risk of cardiovascular disease.1
One of the most astounding scientific findings about dance came to my attention in 2007, when a group of physiotherapists reported the results of a study based on tango dancing and the neurological condition Parkinson’s disease.2 They found that when people with Parkinson’s took part in a series of partnered tango dance classes, their physical symptoms improved remarkably.
People with Parkinson’s don’t have enough dopamine, because the cells that produce it have stopped working properly, giving rise to a series of both physical and mental symptoms, such as loss of balance, tremors, stiffness and slowness of movement, impaired thinking, pain, anxiety and depression. When I heard about this finding, I was sceptical. I simply didn’t believe that symptoms caused by neurodegeneration could be improved by a few sessions of tango dancing. However, because I have seen the amazing power of dance to help people who suffer from a multitude of different conditions, I was intrigued enough to test the finding myself.
I put together a team of top scientists, including a neuroscientist, a physiotherapist, a cognitive psychologist, an occupational therapist and a social anthropologist, as well as experts in improvised dance, ballet, ballroom and show dance, and set up a lab to investigate.3
The original research in this area had shown that dancing could help with the physical symptoms of Parkinson’s, such as balance and walking, and I wanted to see if others would be alleviated, too. I wanted to look at the effects of dancing on thinking and problem solving, quality of life and depression.
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On the first day of the study, we assessed a group of men and women with Parkinson’s on a wide range of physical abilities, as well as thinking and problem-solving skills and quality of life. A few days later, our volunteers started to dance. They took part in twice weekly sessions of contact improvisation. A few days after their final dance session, we assessed everyone again on the same measures as before, and what we found was extraordinary.
One of the tests we performed involved timing how long it took people to stand up from a chair and walk a certain distance. These movements are often impaired in people with Parkinson’s as the neurodegeneration slows them down and affects their balance. We found that after 10 sessions of contact improvisation, the participants were much faster at this fundamentally important physical task. Another of our tests looked at people’s emotional wellbeing and bodily discomfort, and both had improved considerably over the course of the study. Finally, we were amazed to see improvements in the way people thought about and solved problems. The dancing, or rolling on the floor to whale sounds, had made them think differently, and more creatively.
Everyone in the research team was stunned, but as sceptical scientists, we knew we shouldn’t get too carried away too soon. We sat around a table and decided that we should run all the tests again, just to be sure. So, we set up another study, recruited more people with Parkinson’s and changed the style of dance. This time we led people through characterful dances, such as the Charleston, a Bollywood routine, a Cockney knees-up and some Saturday Night Fever, all to music that had a very strong rhythmic beat. We also measured everyone’s mood at several points before, during and after the sessions.
After 12 weeks, we were delighted to find the same improvements in people’s physical functions and quality of life, and what’s more, for the first time, we found a reduction in feelings of depression, anger and tension and an increase in vigour. People felt happier and less tired after an hour of bopping along to a beat. So, the message is: whatever state you are in, do your body and mind a favour and dance.
Dance and depression
The emotional high we get from dancing is down to dopamine, the brain chemical that is lacking in people with Parkinson’s. Low levels of dopamine are associated with feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, fatigue, demotivation, pain, lack of energy and mood swings. Dancing to music is a great way to overcome these negative feelings, because both the exercise and our emotional responses to the music we’re hearing can increase the release of dopamine in different parts of the brain. As dopamine levels go up, we can shake off some of those negative feelings and float into a euphoric state.
Depression can be overwhelming and all-consuming. When you are in the throes of it, it can become increasingly difficult to switch off negative thoughts, leaving insufficient headspace to think about other things. Dancing helps to switch off these thoughts and encourages people to concentrate, learn and remember new things. And there is plenty of science to back this up. One study, carried out in Germany, examined the effects of dance on people who had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital with depression.4 It was found that just one 30-minute session of dance was enough to reduce their symptoms and increase feelings of vitality.
The study used a lively, upbeat dance called the Hava Nagila, which means ‘let us rejoice’ in Hebrew. It involves some quite lively, energetic dancing in a circle to uplifting music. After completing the study, the researchers wanted to know whether it was the music on its own that was causing the reduction in depressive symptoms, so they conducted another trial in which a second group of people with depression just sat and listened to the music. In this music-only group, the patients actually became slightly more depressed. So, it seems that dancing is key. And it’s remarkable that just one 30-minute session is sufficient to lead to observable results.
In another study, this time carried out in Korea, scientists wanted to know whether a longer-term programme of dance would lead to improvements in mood in a group of 16-year-old schoolgirls who had mild depression.5 The girls were divided into two groups. One group took part in three dance sessions a week for 12 weeks; the other group, the control group, did nothing.
The dance sessions were focused on body awareness, movement and expressing feelings and images. The scientists found that, as might be expected, there was no change in mood for the girls in the control group, whereas the dancing sessions led to a reduction in feelings of depression, anxiety and hostility for the other group. The scientists attributed this improvement in symptoms to the fact that dance made the girls feel more physically relaxed, thus diluting the concentration of stress hormones circulating around their bodies.
What is interesting about both these studies is that different types of dancing, lively and energetic in the first study, reflective and expressive in the second, have a positive impact on the mood of people with both severe and mild depression. And it seems that the more depressed you are, the greater the impact dancing will have.
Andrew Lane and David Lovejoy, two researchers from the UK, gave 80 people a questionnaire that assessed emotions such as tension, anger, fatigue, depression, vigour and confusion, and grouped the participants according to how depressed they were.6
Participants were grouped into either a ‘no-depression group’, or a ‘depressed mood group’, using pre-exercise depression scores. Then everyone took part in a 60-minute aerobic dance session. After the dance session, they completed the questionnaire again. The results showed that, following the dance class, there was a general reduction across the board in feelings of anger, confusion, fatigue and tension, but the reduction was greater in the depressed mood group.
Seeing people’s lives transformed by dance is an awe-inspiring experience: people with Parkinson’s disease and dementia getting a new lease of life; reductions in depression and anxiety in teenagers and adults. All because of dancing.
The dance cure
Live longer – Zumba
If you are new to dance or find it hard to get started, try a ‘follow-me’ dance style that is matched to your physical abilities. Zumba is a great place to start because it’s suitable for all ages, fitness levels and dance abilities.
Increase empathy – Gay Gordons
The Gay Gordons is a Scottish country dance. The moves are simple to learn, but it takes some skill and practice to execute with a partner. The Gay Gordons is a wonderful dance for strengthening emotionalintelligence skills, because you need to understand where your partner is in space and time, to think about where they need to be in a few counts’ time, and to help them arrive there (all the time, keeping track of where you yourself are in space and time).
Destress and strengthen resilience – pogo
The punk-era pogo is the perfect dance to banish stress and enhance resilience. Punks danced by jumping up and down, as though they were bouncing on pogo sticks, and wildly crashing into each other. Dancing in such a way meant they had to develop the ability to recover and adjust quickly to the crowded dance floor – an excellent lesson for learning how to deal with the challenges of life. If you don’t fancy the frenzy of the pogo, there are other dances that can help you think about resilience, such as the cha-cha-cha.
Get out of a rut – Sailor’s Hornpipe
The Sailor’s Hornpipe is a dance performed on board ships and was choreographed to represent the types of movements carried out at sea. Taking inspiration from this nautical jig, try thinking about the movements that are typical of your environment. To start with, choose a repetitive jumping or skipping step. Then, think about four actions that represent tasks you typically carry out throughout the day – perhaps you sit at a computer and type. Think about one of the movements you do over again and then start to mix it up. Perhaps you can do it in super-slow motion. Once you’ve done this, embellish the movement. For example, incorporate other parts of your body into it. Changing the way you interact with your environment and physically perform your daily activities will change the way you think about the habits that create your rut.
Learn to love yourself – dance on your own
If you have been feeling unsure of yourself, or lacking in self-esteem, dancing privately can be a marvellous way of rekindling some self-love. It enables you to try new moves and experiment. It gives you the space and time to lose yourself in the music and movement, to really get to know yourself, which in turn will help release you from self-consciousness. As you start to feel stronger in private, you will find you are feeling more confident in public, too.
Manage change – country line dance
We all make transitions as we change and develop. A country line dance is an excellent way to help us think about the changes that happen in our lives – and how to face up to them. Once you have learned the basic movements of a line dance, you repeat them as you face in different directions, front, back, right and left. This confuses a lot of people, because inevitably we get used to doing things with a consistent outlook, and if we change that outlook it can push us out of our comfort zone. Sometimes the sequence of steps can change as we move around the room, just as aspects of ourselves change as we move through life.
Improve self-confidence – belly dance and ballet
I know from experience that coming to terms with our changing body through ageing or illness can hugely enhance our quality of life. So, there are two forms of dance that I would recommend, both of which can be wonderfully effective at increasing both body awareness and body confidence: belly dancing and ballet.
If you want to try belly dancing, start off by rolling your abdominal muscles from your rib cage down to your waist and then turning your hips through a figure-of-eight pattern. Once you have got the hang of that, you can really express yourself by making beautiful arm movements at the same time.
A ballet barre is a set of ballet exercises generally carried out while holding onto a barre, or the back of a chair. Ballet is fantastic exercise because it gives almost every group of muscles in the body a stretch, and the rhythm of these muscle movements encourages you to breathe deeply, fully expanding and contracting your lungs.
If you are in poor health, or recovering from an injury, you should seek medical advice before engaging in any new physical activity.
1 Haseler C, Crooke R, Haseler T. Promoting physical activity to patients. British Medical Journal 2019; 366: 15230.
2 Hackney ME, Kantorovitch S, Levin R, Earhart GM. Effects of tango on functional mobility in Parkinson’s disease: a preliminary study. Journal of Neurologic Physical Therapy 2007; 31: 173–179.
3 Lewis C, Annett LE, Davenport S, Hall A, Lovatt P. Mood changes following social dance sessions in people with Parkinson’s disease. Journal of Health Psychology 2016; 21(4): 483–492.
4 Koch SC, Morlinghaus K, Fuchs T. The joy dance: specific effects of a single dance intervention on psychiatric patients with depression. The Arts in Psychotherapy 2007; 24: 340–349.
5 Jeong Y-J, Hong S-C, Lee MS, Park M-C, Kim Y-K, Suh C-M. Dance movement therapy improves emotional responses and modulates neurohormones in adolescents with mild depression. International Journal of Neuroscience 2005; 115(12): 1711–1720.
6 Lane A, Lovejoy DJ. The effects of exercise on mood change: the moderating effect of depressed mood. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 2001; 41(4): 539–545.