Stuck in a rut? Love life stagnating? Need a health boost? You can dance away your cares and more, says Libby Galvin, with the wellness movement everyone can embrace.
Remember those long lockdown months, when Facebook was flooded with families showing off choreographed routines, TikTok dances went viral and pop star Sophie Ellis-Bextor lifted our spirits with her kitchen discos on Instagram? Whether you joined in the craze for dancing or not, a new book says we should all get moving for our health and happiness.
In The Dance Cure: The Surprising Secret To Being Smarter, Stronger, Happier, Dr Peter Lovatt, a dance psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, uses scientific research to make the case for the positive power of dance.
It is proven to lower risks of depression, colon cancer, breast cancer and cardiovascular disease. Other studies have shown that dancing can protect the brain, slowing the natural loss of volume in the hippocampus – the area associated with memory – as we age, lowering the risk of dementia. Dance is also a proven mood-booster, stimulating the release of happy hormones such as serotonin and dopamine, and has been shown to help us bond socially.
Dr Lovatt also argues that dancing can be used as a tool for self-improvement, igniting our creativity, deepening our relationships and even rewiring our thought patterns to overcome obstacles.
His own experiences exemplify the transformative impact of dance. He struggled with severe reading difficulties at school but found that applying his understanding of rhythm to the challenge – which he discovered through dancing – meant that he finally learned to read when he was 23. Dr Lovatt believes we can all benefit from dance – and a lack of confidence or coordination shouldn’t be a barrier. Here’s what dance can do for you and, most importantly, how to get started…
Feel the fear and… move to the beat anyway
Before you can enjoy the benefits of dancing, you might have to overcome its biggest enemy: embarrassment. ‘As we grow up we often stop dancing, which my research shows is usually due to feeling self-conscious,’ says Dr Lovatt. ‘That’s tragic.’
Luckily, there’s a tried and tested cure. First, find a song you love. This is key, says Wolf Mwanje, a dancer who has performed with pop stars such as Little Mix and Rihanna. ‘If you hear a song you like, you won’t be able to help yourself. The music will ignite that flame of movement within you.’
‘Lie on your bed, breathe deeply and let your muscles slacken,’ instructs Dr Lovatt. ‘Start to play your favourite music and feel it in your body. You might just be twitching a muscle. There’s no right or wrong.
‘Then make the movement slightly bigger. Start moving your fingers, followed by your upper body, head and shoulders. Do this several times over a few days until you learn to embody the beat.
‘Once you feel comfortable, sit on the edge of the bed, and repeat the same process again. When you’re ready, stand up and let your hips start rolling. The next step is to look in the mirror and dance with yourself – and smile!’
Get into the groove for greater creativity
Dancing helps us to not only express our creative urges but to actually become more creative. A number of studies show that dancing creates new neural circuits in the brain, helping us find different ways of thinking.
Dr Lovatt says that rather than following a set routine of steps, the best style of dance for getting out of a rut and opening your mind is improvising. Dr Lucie Clements, a cognitive and performance psychologist and senior lecturer at the University of Chichester, agrees that more contemporary or commercial forms of dance styles such as disco are best for helping you look at things in a new light.
‘Most of the learning we do at school and in life teaches what is called convergent thinking – honing in on one single “correct” answer to a problem or situation,’ she says. ‘But dance, especially more free-form styles, encourages divergent thinking – the ability to hold multiple options in your head at once and find creative solutions to a given problem. It’s a more open-minded way of learning and approaching the world.’
The cure for no body confidence? Belly dancing!
It might seem counterintuitive – or even slightly terrifying – but Dr Lovatt often recommends belly dancing for people who are lacking confidence. ‘When they first go, they don’t want to show any skin, but eventually they learn to express themselves so well physically that they find themselves doing previously unthinkable things – even wearing bells and chimes to accentuate the sounds their body makes when it moves. Dancing is the ultimate way of facilitating a mind-body connection, and through belly dancing they fall in love with their bodies again.’
You can learn to belly dance with free videos on YouTube or on the NHS website (nhs.uk/conditions/nhs-fitness-studio). Alternatively, try the online exotic dancing classes run by London Dance Academy, which are specifically aimed at improving body confidence (londondanceacademy.co.uk).
Couples who sway together stay together
In the same way that sex with your partner can deepen your relationship, so too can dancing with them. ‘Research studies have shown that four things happen when people dance together,’ explains Dr Lovatt. ‘They report liking each other more, trusting each other more, they feel they are more psychologically similar in terms of their values, and they’re more likely to help one another outside the context of dancing.
‘We’ve also seen how dancing can change the way you think and solve problems – so you can become more versatile at finding solutions to relationship problems. Moving together is a fantastic gateway to intimacy and offers a release when we become emotionally stuck. You might want to try a dance such as the tango, because with this you’re very connected physically with one another.’
Dr Clements recommends, ‘Latin or ballroom dance, because they force you to forge a bond with your partner, move with them, move your hips fluidly and respond to each other’.
Start small and make it fun. A few minutes of spontaneous dancing when you turn up the radio is a way in. ‘Studies have shown that when people’s heart rates are raised from just a brief bit of exertion together, they automatically find each other more attractive,’ says Dr Lovatt.
Try YouTube for numerous tutorials on salsa or ballroom steps, or visit thedatingdivas.com for access to date-night tutorials.
Free your body and your mind will follow
You can lose yourself in any form of dancing. ‘It has the power to put us in a flow state,’ says Dr Lovatt. This is what meditation or mindfulness seeks to achieve; a state of focus where all distractions drop away and which can quell stress and anxiety.
He recommends ballet as the best way to get into a flow state – as concentrating on movements and moving in certain sequences will completely absorb your mind. ‘Synchronising your breath with your movement also has a meditative effect,’ adds Dr Lovatt. Brandon Lawrence, principal dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, agrees. ‘It’s a huge sense of escape. Six days a week the company does classes before rehearsal, and it has a kind of meditative discipline about it, almost like a ritual,’ he says.
You don’t have to become a professional ballet dancer to do this – you can follow a series of simple drills at home. Dr Lovatt suggests trying a series of pliés as a great way to start thinking about pairing your breath with movement. ‘Hold on to something at waist height – for example, the back of a chair. Breathe in, then as you bend your knees, breathe out and try to make the length of breath the same as the length of time it takes to fully bend your legs. Now breathe in as you straighten your legs and return to full height. You can do the same coordinated movement and breathing exercise with your arms.’
Now give these a twirl…
The dance classes you can do from home
Dan’s: A London-based dance studio offering afrobeat, reggaeton and salsa-based classes. letsdans.co.uk
All the moves
Pineapple studios: Ballet, tap, jazz, commercial and more, online every day of the week. pineapple.uk.com
Steezy: Try hip-hop, dancehall and more, with a seven-day free trial. steezy.co
Frame: Frequent live workshops with themes such as Taylor swift or the Pussycat Dolls. moveyourframe.com
For every age
Sadlers Wells: The theatre releases video workshops for both children and older adults on its YouTube channel. sadlerswells.com
The Dance Cure: The Surprising Secret To Being Smarter, Stronger, Happier by Dr Peter Lovatt is published by Short Books, price £12.99. Order a copy for £8.49 until 23 August 2020 at whsmith.co.uk by entering code YOUDANCE at checkout. Book number: 9781780724119. For terms and conditions go to whsmith.co.uk/terms.