International Dance Day: The power of movement for mental health
Opinion by Ravinder Johal
Dance has always been a method for humans to express and manage their emotions. In honour of International Dance Day, Ravinder Johal tells how dance has helped with her mental health, and how it could benefit you.
If you’ve clicked on this article, you’re probably either a dancer or someone who is intrigued about dance. Hopefully this article will inspire you to keep at your sport or join as a beginner!
Today also happens to be International Dance Day which is a global celebration of dance, created by the Dance Committee of the International Theatre Institute in 1982. It is celebrated annually on 29th April, which marks the birthday of Jean-Georges Noverre (1727–1810), the creator of modern ballet.
The first evidence of ‘dancing’ as an art form was found in cave paintings from India dated to about 8000BC. That’s almost unimaginably far away from our present, and
for me it prompts the question: why did people start dancing also those millennia ago? What’s so special about dance?
For some, dance is a form of expression, a release of pent-up emotions and a source of freedom; for others, it’s an art, something that can tell a story, and which touches our souls.
Why I started dancing
When I first started to dance, it was because I needed relief from my daily routine. I felt that something was missing from my life – yes, I was succeeding academically and personally, and my mental health was alright, but I felt like I could do more. I viewed dance as a way to connect with my body, to gain power and energy and elevate my fitness levels.
But most of all, dancing gave me confidence. I’ve always struggled with self-esteem, but dancing was a way to let go of my conceptions of ‘body image’ and just move without fear or worry.
It also opened up opportunities for me – I performed at shows, which was a way of widening my comfort zone and trying new things; I made friends with other dancers, and as well as being ‘proper’ dancers we were able to mess around and choreograph fun routines just for the sake of it!
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In this article, I want to eliminate the view that you have to be ultra-fit and ultra-talented to take up dancing. I was neither of these things, which was initially intimidating when I had to audition with a studio full of ballerinas who has been dancing all their lives – but the fitness came with time, and you’ll only improve at something if you practice. The dance mindset is strong, determined and ready for any challenge that may present itself. Even if you’re a timid introvert like me, I believe that with patience you can learn it too.
So, if I still haven’t convinced you to take up dancing, here are 3 reasons why it can boost your mental health:
Dancing is a social activity
Dancing with others encourages social bonding, which in turn can lift your mood by releasing feel-good chemicals (such as dopamine) in the brain. According to Harvard Medical School, strong social connections can improve your long-term health, in the same way that a healthy diet and good-quality sleep do! So, why not find a local dance class and see if there’s a chance to register. If you’re at a university or college, there’s more than likely going to be a few dance societies, ranging from beginner to advanced levels.
Healthy body, healthy mind
Dancing can help you improve your posture and flexibility, and studies have shown that simply sitting up straighter can help improve symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress. ‘Slumping’ in your seat, as well as being bad for your neck, back and hips, can lower your self-esteem, making you feel small and self-conscious. Learning to dance can make you more aware of how you carry yourself, helping you to keep your muscles and bones in the right places, and make you feel good about your body.
It’s a hard skill to master
Dancing as a hobby is great fun, but taking it to the next level can also bring benefits: determination, willpower, time-management, organisation – these are the key transferable skills you’ll gain while training to become a professional or semi-professional performer.
When we are depressed, anxious or stressed, it becomes harder to maintain focus on our goals, or to get even the little things done. But, with practice, these challenges become easier; dance is a great way to practice maintaining a routine.
Try this: every day, for the next seven days, schedule 5 minutes of stretching and 10 minutes of dancing into your daily routine (or more, if you think you’re capable). This simple goal will be something to practice every day, and you might surprise yourself with how your resilience grows.
Next time you find yourself bored on the weekend, or scrolling mindlessly through social media, take a step back and think about how you could spend that time doing something fun, active and powerful. I’ve attached some YouTube links below for those who want to dance but don’t know where to start.
"When the music and dance create with accord… their magic captivates both the heart and the mind."
- Jean-Georges Noverre