This month I have been tagged in this specific article over and over. The article is titled "Dancing can reverse the signs of aging in the brain". Every day for a week, I was tagged in this article, and I am not complaining, because it sure beats those times when well-meaning friends and family tag me in any dance-related video.
Any. dance. related. video.
I love it when these kinds of articles go viral. They are not surprising. No revelations here- I am certain most dancers would agree that the link between dance and a healthy mind are like peanut butter and jelly.
When we pair these two things up, dance and mental health, we are opening a pandora's box that has so much nuance and such a widespread ripple effect that we could spend tons of episodes diving in and probably never hit the bottom. My goal today is to touch on some of the most magical ways dance and mental health are linked, what dance has to do with trauma recovery, what it's like to dance with anxiety and depression, and the miraculous ways that dance directly serve and strengthens our neuro-chemistry.
And let's just be real here-- more than anyone else, I will be the first to admit that my struggles in the aftermath of trauma have been so complex. It's like a giant ball of yarn that I will be holding all of my life, slowly detangling and smoothing, and while that ball of yarn gets smaller and smaller, it's never fully undone. Because my trauma is that of sexual assault, this episode carries a certain kind of urgency. We'll get to that in a minute.
I like to think about dance and mental health in terms of layers. From the first layer of pure pleasure to the fourth layer of deep anxiety that demands we re-examine the concept of "leave it at the door"
Let’s check them out.
Layer One: Fluffy, light, chemical fun.
Layer one is a pure pleasure play. At it's most basic level, we know that dance provides a cascade of chemical reward. Science is in our corner on this.
The Telegraph posted a great article titled "why dancing feels so good" and in it, a dance psychologist named Dr. Peter Lovatt says:
“Dancing stimulates us physically and emotionally...you appear to get a much bigger release of endorphins when you dance than during other forms of exercise; it also connects with the emotional centers in the brain. For many people, dancing prompts an emotional release – often that’s uncomplicated happiness, while for some it can make them cry. It’s cathartic – a letting go of pent-up emotions.” (emphasis mine)
We know that dance produces endorphins, so at the very least, we know our bodies fully reward us for dancing. But this is not the same as motivation. This chemical reward doesn’t motivate us: the reward comes with the dancing, not before.
This explains why on many days I find it so hard to get to the studio despite my love for dance.
I have so much to do!
The simple act of getting to class is the hardest part, but once I am there I often find myself wondering "how could I ever fathom skipping this?". That pure joy, feeling so alive...those feelings meet me there in class every time.
Layer Two: Unison
Layer two is the ways in which dance connects us as humans.
Dr. Lovatt also says
“It’s scientifically proven that dancing helps with social bonding. The synchrony involved in dancing to a beat along with other people is a powerful way for humans to connect.”
I have taken classes at home alone and it feels...utilitarian at best, like I am fulfilling an obligation, or doing what's "good" for me, but it is completely lacking that element of joy that I feel in class, which tells me that so much of what dance offers has to do with the communal elements.
OK dancers, I need to take a nerdy detour, because while I was digging into this, I came across something that made my inner dweeb leap for joy
There is a woman named Hannah Poikonen who works in the Cognitive Branch of the Research Institute. She has been developing novel ways to study various brain functions outside of a laboratory and she chose dance as a primary factor.
We like you, Hannah.
For one component of her research, the brain waves of dancers were studied
When speaking about monitoring a group of dancers, she observed that the low-frequency brain waves of the dancers become synchronized and noted:
“Brain synchronization is necessary for creating both harmonic music and movement. The ability to become attuned to another person’s brain frequency is essential for the function of any empathetic community.”
Friends..are we listening?
When we dance with people our freakin brain waves sync up. And if being attuned to other dancers brain frequency is a function of a more empathetic community, it is no wonder dancers bond so deeply with each other. This is so beautiful.
Layer three: Brainiacs
So, we went from feel-good chemicals to social benefits and now into cognitive functioning.
We're far past theories when it comes to the power of dance. Western medicine is finally into well-documented and peer-reviewed evidence that dance actually has profound long term effects on the brain's function.
The article that I mentioned at the beginning of the podcast, the one I keep getting tagged in is a summary of a recent study of the cognitive effects of dance on senior citizens. There was a lead doctor in the study, Dr. Rehfeld, and he explains:
"We tried to provide our seniors in the dance group with constantly changing dance routines of different genres (Jazz, Square, Latin-American and Line Dance). Steps, arm-patterns, formations, speed, and rhythms were changed every second week to keep them in a constant learning process. The most challenging aspect for them was to recall the routines under the pressure of time and without any cues from the instructor."
Let's raise our hands to the badassery of these senior citizens, performing combos with no instruction from the teacher. Yowza.
This study was created to compare the complexities involved in dance with the repetitive nature of more standardized workouts...the theory being that dance is a superior form of movement...and of course, it is.
Remember how a few posts back we were talking about muscle memory and the way white matter increases in the brain? Well, it turns out dance intervention was documented as one of the most powerful ways of restoring the integrity of white matter.
And let's not forget that we can now go to school for a doctorate in dance and movement therapy. We are finally recognizing the incredible therapy that is dance. This thing that allows us to be vulnerable and expressive yet doesn't require we say a word.
I also need to mention the Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACE study. This was a big one, dancers, and it followed the long term effects of childhood trauma.
As a survivor myself, I was drawn to one of the most powerful conclusions of this study, which was the evidence that trauma is physically stored in the body, in our cells. Imagine that. We know there are emotional and cognitive issues to work through, but to imagine my cells as little moving boxes, each holding a piece of what has hurt me... Wow.
This, of course, reminds me of the word recovery, and how the word itself literally means to find again, and it starts in the body. What a wondrous thing. No wonder there is such a reclamation in dance.
However, there is a danger lurking here, and that is the temptation to romanticize dance. To look at those struggling with anxiety, depression, or other challenges and say "come to dance. dance will save you. leave it all at the door" This is gross dismissal of what it feels like to carries these burdens.
Passion doesn't mean overcoming
Layer four: Do not leave it at the door
This brings us into level 4, the deeper therapy of dance.
A while back I saw an article titled "What it's like to Dance with Anxiety and Depression"
The article was written by Sydney Magruder Washington, and one passage, in particular, tugged at me
“In an already ultra-competitive field, living with mental illness can make daily activities—like going to class or auditions—feel like insurmountable challenges. "It makes it hard to do the things that should be fun, and harder to do the things that are already hard. Auditions are not fun for most of us because it's nerve-racking to be judged on how you do at the moment. But when your baseline feeling is that you're worthless it becomes twice as difficult to receive criticism."
It's not uncommon to hear the phrase "leave it at the door," meaning dancers should forget about any outside problems and be fully present in the studio.
"I'm really sick of that expression. I have chains on my legs and I can't take them off. It's like having an extra backpack on your back except that backpack has a voice and it's yelling mean things."
She also wishes people understood that for dancers with a mental illness, every day is different.
"It's not as predictable as you would think," she says. "These aren't periods."
A few months ago we were up at our first dance camp having a beautiful dance session under the stars and this same subject came up. I don't want people in my class to leave it at the door, because I don't want them to pick it back up when they leave. Instead, I need them to bring it in and work through it, to maybe lighten their burden in their hour with me.
I'd like to put out a call for us to celebrate the extreme magic of dance, remember that we've no idea what others are up against, and also to remind ourselves that we are in charge of our experience. We have the power to set intentions and pursue them while also holding space for the dancers around us to process through their own set of challenges.
Science is a beautiful thing.