Emotions in motion

An extract from ‘The Dance Cure: The surprising secret to being smarter, stronger, happier’ by Dr Peter Lovatt, with kind permission from the publisher Short Books.

I dance to release endorphins and make me happy. I dance to share joy and laugh with others. I dance to feel my heart beat faster.
– Female, aged 23, Dr Dance Survey Why do You Dance?

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 warm-up and stretch last for about 30 minutes and then Fleur, the instructor, teaches a routine that is full of expression. 

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 Fleur’s 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 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 dopamine, the brain chemical I talked about in the section about Parkinson’s in the last chapter. As we saw, as well as having an effect on movement, dopamine plays a role in how we feel, and 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. 

Dance your blues away 

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 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 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 sixteen-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 twelve weeks and 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, vigour 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 programme 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. 

Self-esteem and confidence 

The poet Kamand Kojouri writes that we dance “to fall in love with ourselves”, and this is something that I've observed throughout my dancing and teaching career. Time and again, dancers have told me how much of an impact dancing has had on their sense of self-worth. 

A report published by the Health Development Agency in 2000 following research into the link between participation in the arts and health found that engaging in arts-based activities definitely improved participants’ sense of well-being and self-esteem. Across 90 projects, 91% reported a devel­opment in people’s self-esteem and 82% reported increased confidence. 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could set up more places where communities could come together through dance, in airports, parks, on high streets and in GP surgeries? We are, supposedly, in the middle of an anxiety epidemic in the UK, in which people are suffocating under the weight of low self-esteem and lack of confidence. Wouldn’t it be great if we could reduce this burden through more community dance? 

A research study carried out in Manchester, which looked at the impact of dance and swimming on body image satisfaction and physical self-perceptions, recruited a group of girls between the ages of thirteen and fourteen who were all dissatisfied with their body image, and who didn’t do very much exercise. The girls were divided into two groups – a dancing group and a swimming group – and asked to carry out their designated activity twice a week for six weeks. At the end of the study, the girls in the dancing group reported huge positive changes in their perception of their physical worth and attractiveness, and also dra­matic reductions in their sense of feeling fat. For the girls in the swimming group, however, there were no changes in any of these areas. These girls continued to feel just as dissatisfied with their body image as they had six weeks earlier. 

This is why I am such a strong advocate of dance for emotional well-being. More than any other form of exercise, it has the power to transform how we feel about ourselves. 

Power and feeling empowered 

There are times when dance is used explicitly and purposefully as a means of expressing aggression and intimidation. Let’s consider a dance that has mes­merised crowds at rugby stadiums around the world, including Twickenham, the home of British rugby. The dance is the haka, and the New Zealand All Blacks perform it before every international match. 

The dance involves facial contortions, sticking out your tongue, making your eyes bulge, stamping your feet and slapping your body, and can be accompanied by cries, grunts and chanted words. The haka gives the rugby team energy and it makes the players feel powerful. It also instils fear in the opposition, just as it would have done when it was danced before battles to the death. 

Because the haka is historically a war dance; an ancient posture dance performed by the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, before going into battle. There are several varieties, including the “peruperu”, a choreographed dance to evoke the god of war and to give opponents one last chance to back out, and the “neri”, an un-choreographed dance per­formed to motivate people psychologically. One of the purposes of the haka was to unify the dancers, to put them in a single frame of mind. War dances that were well organised and executed in perfect time by all the dancers (warriors) were considered lucky. It is thought that the dances were passed down from one generation to the next – they may have origi­nated as early as the thirteenth century, when the first Polynesian settlers arrived in New Zealand. 

For the All Blacks, the aim of the haka is to intimidate their opponents and make themselves feel united as a team, powerful and invincible. Some of the movements, such as the throat-slitting gestures, had to be removed in 2006 because they were consid­ered just a bit too aggressive. While the All Blacks are probably the most famous pre-match-dancing rugby team, they are certainly not the only ones to perform the haka: rugby teams from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga use a similar tactic to empower themselves. 

Scientists in Japan and New Zealand have exam­ined the impact dancing the haka has on people’s psychological and emotional state. After the per­formance, haka dancers report feeling excited and provocative, and experiencing a sense of motivational dominance. People have known for centuries that moving your body in a particular way can success­fully prepare you for battle. The way opposing rugby teams deal with the haka varies considerably. Some just stand and watch in fear, some avert their eyes, while others defiantly stare them out at very close quarters. 

Never underestimate the power of the human body to communicate emotions and generate a response in others: we stimulate the brains of those watching us when we move in different ways, and as we change the emotions that underpin our movements, we acti­vate different areas of our observers’ brains. Imagine you’re watching an emotional movie, one in which the actors convey happiness, followed by fear, then sadness: you’ll be getting a full-on brain workout as you process all this information. My emotional movie for this full-on brain workout is Singin’ in the Rain

Communicating emotion – an artist’s approach 

I’ve always been entranced when choreographers and dancers succeed in changing the way I feel. The first time I remember this happening was at a ballet per­formance of Romeo and Juliet (choreographed by Ken­neth MacMillan). I was touched by the tenderness and love of Juliet and Romeo as they kissed on the bed. It was almost as if the couple weren’t dancing, and I felt awkward, like a voyeur, spying on their intimacy. It was a beautiful portrayal and it moved me. 

Romeo and Juliet was the inspiration for the musical West Side Story and the dancing in this film also made a big impact on me emotionally. The choreography, by Jerome Robbins, embodies and communicates perfectly the different emotional states of the Jets and the Sharks. In one routine, danced to Stephen Sondheim’s “Cool”, we can feel the pent-up frustra­tion in the tight, sharp, staccato movements, as Riff’s anger is expressed in an explosive physical release of muscles and limbs, and echoed in the movements of the rest of his gang.

This is a great example of how a solely scientific explanation can fall short of capturing the essence of real emotional expression and communication. Partly, this is because it is extremely rare that we ever feel just one single emotion. For example, when people are feeling happy, they may also experience simultaneous feelings of guilt, or when they are feel­ing proud they may also have a sense of embarrass­ment. 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.

- ‘The Dance Cure: The surprising secret to being smarter, stronger, happier’ by Dr Peter Lovatt, published by Short Books is out now.

Read a review of The Dance Cure by Dr Lucie Clements.

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