Want to boost your creativity, increase your empathy, and kick stress to the curb? Turns out there’s a dance for that. Peter Lovatt, known as Dr. Dance, is the author of The Dance Cure.
Dr. Peter Lovatt is a dance psychologist, former professional dancer, and founder of the Dance Psychology Lab at the University of Hertfordshire.
His writing has been published extensively in the UK and he’s been a keynote speaker alongside Barack Obama, Oprah, and Sir Richard Branson.
Lovatt's book The Dance Cure includes dance-based prescriptions to help improve mental and physical health.
S&H: You write that your number one take-home message is that “if you want to make changes to the way you think, then start with the way you move your body.” I find this such a compelling notion. Can you speak to this?
Peter Lovatt: There is a link between the way people think and the way they move their body. When we move our body, our thinking and problem solving is enhanced. However, in traditional educational settings such as in schools and universities and in many workplaces, people are expected to produce high levels of “thinking” while keeping their body movements to an absolute functional minimum.
We lead sedentary lives, which leads to sedentary, inactive, thinking.
We know from scientific studies that moving and dancing changes the way we think and that different types of movement change our thinking in different ways. For example, moving our body in a spontaneous, unplanned way enhances our creative thinking, and moving with other people enhances problem-solving. We need to make changes to our lived experiences so that movement variety becomes a normal part of our everyday “thinking” life, whether that be at home, in education, at work, or in health and social care settings.
You point out that more than any other form of exercise, dance has the power to transform how we feel about ourselves. Why do you think it does this, and how?
We are born to dance. Dance is as natural as breathing, eating, and loving. Dancing is a central part of who we are, both individually and as a society. Dancing is an innate activity. Like all innate human activities, there are important human survival functions associated with dancing.
There’s the SOCIAL function, which helps us develop relationships and bond socially, there’s the COGNITIVE function, which helps us with memory, language, and perception, there’s the EMOTIONAL function, which helps us regulate, express, and communicate feelings, then there’s the PHYSICAL function which keeps our muscles, joints, senses, heart, lungs, and brain operating at optimum levels.
Dance is different to many other forms of exercise because it is innate (unlike cycling or playing tennis) and it stimulates all four human survival functions.
In The Dance Cure you mention your student who seemed like a completely different person when she was dancing. What is it about dance that transforms us?
All people are naturally beautiful. Our authentic personalities shine like beacons in the dark, creating light and warmth which attracts others to us. When we are confident in our bodies, our thoughts, and our beliefs, when we have relief from worries and anxieties, we move differently, and this changes how we interact with other people. Other people see us as more beautiful and it changes how other people act towards us.
Of course, I am not talking about some artificial, socially constructed concept of beauty, I’m talking about natural beauty. I’m talking about the beauty of the authentic you. Dancing can help us be our authentic self. Science shows us that when we dance with other people it leads to an increase in how much we like, trust, and want to help those people. The same is true when we dance with ourselves. We like, trust, and help ourselves more.
“Science shows us that when we dance with other people it leads to an increase in how much we like, trust, and want to help those people.”
Dance also helps us emotionally. Dancing is cathartic and helps us to experience and express a wide range of emotions. Dancing has been shown to increase our self-worth. All of these things make us more beautiful.
As a former dance teacher myself, I always found it especially rewarding to work with older students who had never taken a dance class before. How do you, in your work, inspire folks to take the often scary step of trying something new like dance?
Thousands of people have told me why they do and don’t dance. The main reasons for not dancing have to do with worries about self-consciousness, technical competency, having the wrong body, being the wrong age, and of once being told that they were not good enough to dance. All of these worries break my heart.
Through my work, I try to demonstrate that every body is a dancing body. I show people that we are, quite literally, born to dance. It doesn’t matter what your body can and cannot do. It can always dance.
I start by working with people to help them find their natural groove—that relationship between the rhythms of the external world and their natural urge to move in response. I dispel myths about who is “allowed” to dance and who dance is for. I try to help people recognize that dance serves different functions to different people. Therefore, just because someone else is using dance for competition purposes, or to be an elite performer, or to find a romantic partner, this doesn’t mean that your reasons for dancing have to be the same. With that in mind, when I’m working with someone individually I start by finding out what someone’s motivation and goals are so that I can help them find the most appropriate form of dance.
What do you say to the notion that those who practice dance forms from cultures other than their own are guilty of cultural appropriation?
This is an important question which requires a longer answer than space will allow me to give here. In short, at a cultural level, dance is a living, growing, expressive art form, and, just like a living verbal language, it evolves over time as people from different cultural and geographic backgrounds share their distinctive movement qualities.
Cultural appropriation in dance can be seen when people borrow the shallow aesthetic qualities of a dance form and use it in a way that is disconnected from its original cultural origins.
Education is key. When we practice a new form of dance we need to understand not just the movements, but the culture, the people, and the origins around the movements. This reduces, I think, the negative effect of cultural appropriation in dance. This is why we should be teaching dance to every child in every school and we should have museums of dance and movement in every major city—as we do art galleries.
You write about how dancing together gives us a natural high because it leads to increased activation of our endogenous opioid system. Can you explain a little bit about how and why it does this?
Dancing raises our pain threshold. Scientists at Oxford University in the UK think that our innate pain-relieving systems might be working overtime when we dance.
The pain-relieving system we have in our brain is called the endogenous opioid system. Our brain produces opioids, which are painkillers, and they can make us feel fantastic. Research suggests that increased activation of the endogenous opioid system during dancing might also make us feel good about the people we are dancing with.
Dancing together gives us a natural high because it leads to increased activation of our endogenous opioid system. This makes us feel pleasure and positively inclined towards the people we are dancing with. This may be one of the reasons why dance has persisted across human history in every culture. The simple act of dancing, especially with other people, gives us a natural high and makes us feel good about the people we’re with.
Of course, the pandemic has put a stop to such things as social dancing. What are some ways dancers are adapting to the COVID era, which hopefully won’t last for too much longer?
During the COVID era, we are finding new ways to dance and we’re discovering a whole new world of dancing opportunities online. My wife and I have two sons, a 22-year-old and a seven-year-old, and during the UK COVID lockdowns, we have danced together in ways we never would have before. We have family disco nights, we have dance-based workout sessions, had hip-hop battles and we’ve brought books to life by acting and dancing them out.
We are very lucky, COVID lockdowns have given us some very special family time. In terms of finding new dancing opportunities online, I’ve been able to take class with some amazing dance teachers who previously only taught in dance studios, and I’ve resurrected my old DVD player (remember those?) and started collecting DVD dance workouts. My current favorite DVD is Joseph Corella’s 567Broadway! Give it a whirl, it’ll put a smile on your face, even in this era of COVID.
Read our review of The Dance Cure by Dr. Peter Lovatt.