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Mental Wellness

Emotions in Motion

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Dance psychologist Peter Lovatt explains why letting the rhythm move you is a brilliant way to lift your mood.

I have often been so overwhelmed with emotion when dancing that I have cried. There is a jazz class I attend at Pineapple dance studios, which starts with a stretch, deep breaths, and loud music. We breathe in and stretch up, before we release from the stretch and exhale. It is on the changeover from inhale to exhale that the emotion catches me, and I have to swallow hard to suppress the free flow of tears. It’s a moment that marks the beginning of an hour-long catharsis, a period of emotional purging.

The body is brilliant at communicating emotion, but other than in a dance class, where do we get the chance to act out with our body what is going on deep in our heart? Most of our lives are spent disconnecting our emotions from our physical expression of them. We feel things, but we cannot express them. Unless you’re a six-year-old child or a Labrador, you cannot freely and spontaneously physically express yourself. Dancing gives humans a tail to wag. In jazz class I have a tail, and I wag it.

We learn routines of different styles, some slow and lyrical, others fast and outward-looking. The two styles speak to different emotional connections between the body and the rest of the world. The lyrical routines seem to amplify the intensity of our emotional states: love, loss, disappointment, hope, determination, strength, ambition, pride, jealousy, resilience. These emotions are drawn out as we sweat and are left, literally, on the dance studio floor. We collapse to the floor, roll and grow upwards, peeling ourselves away from everything that is holding us back. We feel the emotion of the dance deep inside, and although we are in a large studio full of other people, there is a feeling of personal isolation. We are dancing for ourselves; we have connected with our innermost feelings, which spill out into the body in movements that are almost subconscious. It is no wonder that people feel emotional when they dance.

During fast routines there is a completely different focus. Then it is as if we have a superpower that enables us to produce fireballs of passion to tell the world exactly who we are and how we are feeling. Sometimes the routines are a combination of both fast and lyrical, and then the class whips itself up into an expressive and cathartic climax.

This emotional high we get from dancing is down to the brain chemical dopamine. 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.

The lowest periods in my life have been when I’ve stopped dancing. I was a fool when I stopped to study for my higher degrees. Had I known then what I know now about moving and thinking, I would have danced every day. I remember attending an Argentine tango session after a long break from dance and finding it complicated and difficult but intoxicating. I went to bed on a high and woke up smiling with aching cheeks. Over the years I’ve learned to self-medicate with dance to keep my mood stable.

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. It 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.

Just one 30-minute session of dance was enough to reduce their symptoms and increase feelings of vitality

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 program of dance would lead to improvements in mood in a group of 16-year-old schoolgirls who had mild depression. 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.

Two researchers from the UK, Andrew Lane and David Lovejoy, gave 80 people a questionnaire that assessed emotions such as tension, anger, fatigue, depression, vigor, and confusion, and grouped the participants according to how depressed they were. 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.

One of the greatest success stories I’ve heard about the positive changes in mood and emotions brought about
by dance comes from a program in Edinburgh. A group of dance teachers invited recovering addicts to an early-evening Zumba class. Adults who have been addicted to substances such as drugs and alcohol often say they miss the sensation of being high and feel emotionally flat. The Zumba class allowed the (mostly male) attendees to experience an intense and entirely natural high. It was transformational for their mood. Arriving low and pent up, they would leave open and invigorated.

Our emotions run through us like rivers. And it is for this reason that scientists won’t always find the answer to deeply psychological questions about dancing and/or emotions by academic investigation. Great art and the human experience cannot always be dissected by science.

Scientists generally rely on words to document, describe, and disseminate their observations, and because emotions and art are more powerful than words, they often transcend what scientists can glean from their experiments.

Excerpted from THE DANCE CURE by Peter Lovatt, reprinted with permission by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2021.